Was That the End of Eduardo Rodriguez?

Despite receiving an inspiring performance thus far from their knuckleballer, the Boston Red Sox rotation has been a disaster. Their big offseason acquisition has flopped in his first half-season, and Buchholz’s last stand is not going as planned. Dave McCullough wonders if we also saw the end of Eduardo Rodriguez in the rotation when he imploded in Texas.

Like most Red Sox fans, I had high hopes for Eduardo Rodriguez after last year’s breakout performance. An unheralded, and un-hyped prospect, Rodriguez had been acquired in exchange with the Baltimore Orioles for pending free agent Andrew Miller at the trade deadline in 2014. He was expected to provide depth to the starting rotation, as well as offering a little upside potential – he was lefty, he threw hard, and he had good makeup. He wasn’t projected to be a frontline starter when acquired, but if everything broke right, he had a chance of developing into a back-of-the-rotation fixture in Boston.

And then, he got hot. Like, surface of the sun hot. His fastball picked up a mile per hour or two, but more importantly, the pitch also moved an inch or two more while traveling to the plate. Rodriguez “made the leap” and pitched better than even the most optimistic of evaluators could have predicted. Everything was going right – he might have been tipping pitches, but it didn’t matter. He was on a roll and looked like a future ace.

However, there’s a good reason that the “out of nowhere” stars in baseball are rare – talent evaluators are too good. Sample sizes eventually regress to the mean. Streaks – even scorching hot streaks – come to an end. The Gods of BABIP will make certain that no unworthy scrub will stay hot forever. In the past, when I was a young baseball fan, there was always a chance that some overlooked and underappreciated guy like David Ortiz would change organizations and suddenly blossom. But it seems like there are fewer and fewer of those types of “meteoric risers” in the game today. I blame minor league experts, who constantly watch and evaluate to find the true talent level of players as they work their way up the minor-league ladder.

Throughout this past offseason, Boston fans fretted about the pitching. Was there enough depth? Was there enough quality behind new ace David Price? Who was the “#2” starter? Fans didn’t trust the second-highest paid pitcher – Rick Porcello – after his miserable performance in the first half of 2015. And while the enigmatic Clay Buchholz had performed at the desired level in the past, his act – a great half-season and an injury – was wearing thin. But, throughout the bleak winter, fans clung to the hope that Eduardo Rodriguez was for real – that ERod was going to continue to perform like a #2, that he was a late bloomer, and that he was the one trade that former General Manager Ben Cherington won unequivocally.

However, as spring has turned to summer those hopes have been exposed – and so has Eduardo Rodriguez. It is rare to see the air go out of a player’s sails, but I believe we saw the end of the ERod Experience last night. Watch as veteran, team-leader Dustin Pedroia talks to Rodriguez in the midst of his nine-run drubbing at the hands of the toothless Tampa Rays offense:

There’s a great, old Simpsons reference that leapt into my head as I watched Pedroia – a player who cares more about winning than is strictly healthy – beg, plead, cajole, and harangue the 22-year-old-lefty. Look again at Rodriguez’s body language. He’s defeated. He wants to be anywhere but that mound. He, like the Southwest Airlines ad campaign says, wants to get away.

Rodriguez’s troubles this season started almost immediately, as he hurt his left knee four days into spring training. The injury was more severe than the club initially thought and reported and he started the season on the disabled list. When he returned to action, game reports showed mediocre results – and diminished velocity. At 95 mph, Rodriguez’s fastball was effective; at 92 mph, it was far too hittable.

After his debacle against the Rays, the Red Sox optioned Rodriguez back to Pawtucket. Fans hope he just needs to regain some confidence, or that he’ll use the demotion as motivation. Some evaluators think he will use the time in AAA to work on his pitch repertoire, hopefully developing an effective third pitch and further refining his changeup, which may be thrown too hard, limiting its effectiveness. Some have suggested that his limited selection of pitches and the vulnerability of his changeup, were the primary reasons that the Orioles were willing to move Rodriguez in the first place.

Lou Merloni, who in addition to being a part-time color commentator for the radio broadcast hosts a daily talk show on WEEI, spent most of his show with co-host Glenn Ordway questioning whether Rodriguez had the “balls” to be a major-league pitcher. “He gave up out there!” shrieked Merloni in the 11 o’clock hour. “He oughta be embarrassed.” The former major-league utilityman went on to question whether ERod was “tipping pitches” or whether hitters were just able to guess because “he has nothing but a fastball!” He also quoted all the statistics Rodriguez has compiled this season – and they are ugly.

Based on his unheralded minor-league career, his incredible hot streak last season, his injury this season, his lack of a third pitch, the outsized expectations placed on him by fans, and his obvious discomfort at Pedroia’s tongue lashing – we might have seen the last of Eduardo Rodriguez in 2016. The list of one-year pitching wonders is distinguished and long. Pitchers get hot, have a career year, and then get “figured out” by major-league hitters. To be successful, a starting pitcher needs a mix and variety of pitches as well as velocity and location. The Rodriguez of 2016 relies on a fastball, doesn’t have an exceptional changeup, and lacks a third pitch entirely.

ERod’s 2015 was magical – he was a silver lining in an otherwise awful season. A young, fireballing left-hander who posted excellent results almost every time he took the ball was the apple of every Red Sox fan’s eye. But as good as 2015 was, 2016 has proven to be every bit as bad – and then some. As Pedroia talked to Rodriguez on the mound, the slump in his shoulders became more pronounced. He was demoted to Pawtucket after the game, and for his sake, let’s hope he didn’t tune into WEEI on Tuesday or what little confidence he had left would have been crushed by a team broadcaster wondering if he was an “actual major leaguer” and not just a “flash in the pan”.

Dave R. McCullough has written about baseball’s long season and a tribue to Dave Henderson.

 

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