It's Never Too Late To Figure It Out

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Fernando Rodney (56) and first baseman Carlos Pena (23) reacts after they beat the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Seattle Mariners 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

In the early going, it looks like Tampa Bay Rays reliever Fernando Rodney has taken it to another level. There's a lesson we can probably learn from this.

I am going to show you some .gifs of a pitcher pitching. I very frequently show you .gifs of pitchers pitching, but these aren't .gifs of a pitcher pitching terribly. Rather, they're just the opposite. Here are three .gifs of Tampa Bay Rays reliever Fernando Rodney striking batters out:

Rodney_1

Rodney_2

Rodney_3

So that first strikeout was extremely and famously questionable. That isn't the point. The point of these .gifs is to have you watch the catcher's glove. You're watching Fernando Rodney throw the ball exactly where he wants to. The catcher's glove barely has to move. In the third .gif, the pitch is low, but the catcher wants the pitch low.

Okay, so immediately there's an issue. I have specifically selected these pitches, and more, I've specifically selected these pitches from Fernando Rodney's MLB.com highlight page. If one were to try hard enough, one could make any pitcher look terrific in three .gifs. I could probably make three .gifs that make it look like Jonathan Sanchez has pinpoint command. It would take me a few hours and I would scratch out one of my eyeballs, but it would not be impossible.

But Rodney hasn't hit his spots with only those three pitches. Think about Fernando Rodney. Consider your mental associations. He's always thrown hard, but he's always been wild, right? A little too wild for comfort? Exactly true. Here are Rodney's strike rates from the last few seasons:

2009: 62.6%
2010: 61.5%
2011: 58.3%

For reference, the league-average strike rate is right around 63 percent. Rodney's never been known for his ability to pound the zone.

Thursday afternoon against the Mariners, Rodney threw 14 pitches, and 11 for strikes. He's up to 193 pitches thrown on the season, with 68.9 percent for strikes. He's got 12 strikeouts and two walks, with one of those walks being intentional. Basically, Fernando Rodney hasn't looked like Fernando Rodney - he's looked like Fernando Rodney with location. He's looked like Fernando Rodney at his ceiling.

Fernando Rodney is 35 years old. A year ago he posted more walks than strikeouts. The Rays managed to sign him as a free agent to a fairly cheap contract. He's always thrown a tailing fastball in the mid-90s. He's always paired it with a dynamite changeup. He's never quite harnessed his weapons enough, until now. Now Rodney's pitching as a closer in place of Kyle Farnsworth, and he's flourishing.

I don't know how many theories there are for why Rodney's changed, but my theory of choice comes from R.J. Anderson. In April, Anderson observed that Rodney had changed his position on the rubber:

Rodney20112012_medium

It's not exactly intuitive why that would turn Rodney into the strike-thrower he's apparently become, but that's the most substantial change I can find. It doesn't have to be intuitive, either. Little changes can have huge effects for a pitcher. The tiniest mechanical tweaks can allow a pitcher to blossom, or cause him to bomb.

And we don't really care about the Why, here. We care more about the What, and the What is that Fernando Rodney seems to have improved at an advanced age. It could all, of course, be random statistical noise that'll even out over the following months, but I'm running with this. If it turns out I'm wrong and Rodney is the same old Rodney, hopefully by the time that's clear you will have forgotten all about this article.

Fernando Rodney has been in the major leagues since 2002. He's always been one of those guys with electric stuff you just want to see figure it out. He's had his spurts of effectiveness, but through 2011 he owned a career 101 ERA+, and he'd walked more than 12 percent of the batters he'd faced. At his age, you would've assumed that Rodney was just Rodney. I think you would've been right to assume as much.

But, no, now he's 35 and different. Now Rodney is finally pitching up to his potential, at an age where most players are starting to think about how much time they have left.

There's a lesson, and the short of it is that baseball's just unpredictable. All right, that isn't very interesting. But stick with me. Prior to this season, Aroldis Chapman threw about 60 percent strikes. Now he's up around 65 percent strikes, without warning. The example that always sticks out in my mind is Matt Thornton. The Mariners dumped him on the White Sox when he was 29 and hopelessly wild. Instantly he started throwing more strikes and became a reliable power lefty. One year, Thornton walked 16 percent of batters. The next year, he walked nine percent of batters.

There are several more examples where these guys came from. Pitchers, mainly - I'm talking about pitchers. There's a sprawling pool of major-league and triple-A pitchers who have promising stuff and mediocre command. The overwhelming bulk of them will remain that way until they either retire or lose their stuff. Some of them will eventually figure it out. And it's all but impossible to pinpoint when that could happen.

Which makes them so damn frustrating. It makes a guy like Jonathan Sanchez so damn frustrating. You work and you work and you just don't know. You wish that pitchers had an expiration date. You wish that you could look at Sanchez and say, okay, he's 29 and he hasn't figured it out, so he's never going to figure it out. It doesn't work like that. If Sanchez has an expiration date, no one knows what it is, so people are always tempted to try him out. Someone might get lucky. Think about how good he could be if he harnessed his stuff! He'll probably never harness his stuff. But think about if he did!

It's enough to drive you crazy. It looks like the Rays have struck gold by signing Rodney and giving him a prominent role in the bullpen. That's a gamble that's worked out, possibly due to a tweak that the Rays suggested. A lot of other talented pitchers won't work out, and they'll keep on not working out until they finally go away. When they go away, people will wonder, what if? Because, what if?

Pitchers are just the weirdest things.

***


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