Fernando Rodney, Relief Pitcher
Fernando Rodney got a save last night. The usual convention is to say that a guy earned a save, but the usual convention doesn’t apply in this case, as the only thing Rodney earned was mass contempt. We can laugh about the game because of the way it ended, and because of the way it ended, people are less down on Rodney than they would be otherwise. Things would be worse if the Mariners had lost. But, Rodney got the last two outs while trying to give up the tying and go-ahead runs. The guy who really earned the save was Justin Smoak, who was worth more WAR in one game than he had been worth in his entire big-league career before.
With that said, in fairness to Rodney, if last night was a lucky successful save, then last week had an unlucky blown save. So for Rodney, it’s evened out, in no time.
There are a few points to make here. Already, people can’t stand having Fernando Rodney closing games. He hasn’t been throwing nearly enough strikes, and given that he occupies the most high-leverage role on the team, fans are going to be less patient with him than they are with other players, since his mistakes are magnified. Fans of most teams find their closer uncomfortable. Fans of most teams think their closer has a nasty habit of making things interesting. Rodney’s no different, and while an ability to make games interesting is something the Mariners have sorely lacked for basically a decade, his ride has been especially frightening. When a pitcher in the ninth can’t find the zone, as a fan you feel completely helpless. As a fan you’re always helpless, but wild closers are slow torture. At least dinger closers are abrupt, surprising torture.
There’s something important to understand about Rodney, though. The walks have always been there, and the walks are always going to be there. But he doesn’t get hit. He lets too many batters get one base, but few have managed to get more.
Going back to 2000, 372 pitchers have thrown at least 500 innings. Rodney’s .342 slugging percentage against ranks 14th-lowest. Somewhat appropriately, he’s tied with Jose Valverde, and Chris Sale’s at .347. Felix is at .356. And since 2010, 309 pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings. Rodney’s .300 slugging percentage against ranks ninth-lowest. He’s between Koji Uehara and Greg Holland, a few points in front of Clayton Kershaw. Rodney can’t keep walking batters like this, but he manufactures his own trouble. Hitters are frequently on the defensive, and this is a credit to Rodney’s stuff. His walks don’t come with a league-average rest of the profile. His walks come with a relatively unhittable rest of the profile.
More generally, as another point, Rodney is sort of an illustration of the stereotypes of relief pitchers. Rodney is not the stereotypical relief pitcher, exactly, but he captures the volatility. We’ve all seen him, now. Some would say they’ve seen enough of him. We always had some concept of Fernando Rodney, but now that he’s our own, we’re more able to really feel the experience. Not a single one of us trusts Fernando Rodney to throw a strike when he needs to. A lot of Mariners fans already prefer the idea of promoting Danny Farquhar and demoting Rodney to setup, or something lesser.
So, consider how Rodney makes you feel. Now consider that, as recently as 2012, Rodney posted the lowest ERA in baseball history. Consider that, as recently as 2012, Rodney posted a top-20 walk rate. Two out of every three pitches were strikes. A few years ago, Rodney was a closer who didn’t even make things interesting. That made him interesting.
It has to be one of the miracles of our times. In Rodney’s career, before that, he threw 62% strikes, with 12% walks. In Rodney’s career, since that, he’s thrown 62% strikes, with 13% walks. There’s just a one-year anomaly, and it’s not even like it was a Tampa Bay-specific epiphany since the next year, still in Tampa Bay, most of the numbers returned closer to average. For absolutely no reason at all, Fernando Rodney ripped off 75 innings of being consistently amazing.
The Mariners have their own other example in Tom Wilhelmsen. Wilhelmsen, like Rodney, throws super hard with a quality second pitch, and Wilhelmsen, like Rodney, didn’t used to be thought of as a strike-thrower. Then, suddenly, the strikes arrived, then, suddenly, the strikes disappeared. Currently they occupy the same bullpen, sometimes slated to pitch back-to-back. A major difference is that, when wild, Rodney still gets his whiffs. So he can still get himself out of trouble. Wilhelmsen’s not getting strikeouts anymore, and that makes him an intriguing unknown. It’s obvious what he can be, because he’s been it. It’s also obvious you can never predict when things might click, if they click ever again.
That guy you don’t trust in the Mariners bullpen — just a few years ago, he was virtually perfect. That other guy you don’t trust in the Mariners bullpen — just a few years ago, he was also outstanding. The only sense you can make of it is that things don’t have to make sense when you’re dealing with relievers, that sometimes you just get 50-odd innings a few standard deviations above or below the mean. It’s for that reason teams have been willing to pay a premium for relievers they perceive as reliable, and it’s for that reason teams have regretted a lot of those investments. On average, relievers are as predictable as anyone else. But because of the sample sizes, they scatter all over the place around the mean, and sometimes you end up with Fernando Rodney, and sometimes you end up with Fernando Rodney. I hope you’ve been taking good care of your heart.