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Baltimore Orioles 2013 in review: Francisco Rodriguez

Francisco Rodriguez, formerly an elite closer, cost the O's a useful prospect and coughed up 11 runs in 22 innings in Baltimore. What happened?

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Rodriguez was acquired from the Brewers on July 23rd in a trade for Nick Delmonico. At the time, Rodriguez was holding batters to .198/274/.291 (2 HR) in 24 2/3 innings. Obviously an excellent acquisition, right? But when he joined the Orioles, he melted down, allowing an opponents' line of .281/.326/.573 (5 HR) in 22 innings. For every positive contribution, there was a negative one, as indicated by his 0.0 Win Probability Added (WPA). A flat WPA during a division/Wild Card race is not good. Neither is that absurd slugging percentage. Seriously, just look at it!

Rodriguez hurt the O's chances in 2013 far more than he helped them. Delmonico may not have had a future in Baltimore, but as a 21-year-old 1B/3B hitting .344/.351/.471 with 13 HR in High-A ball, he could've brought more in return than Sir McGivesUpHomers. Dan Duquette bet on Rodriguez and he lost.

When evaluating Rodriguez's time with the O's, we need to understand two things:

  • In some ways, K-Rod pitched better for the O's than he did for the Brewers. His K rate in the second half was better than it was in Milwaukee (29.2% here vs. 26.8% there) and his walk rate was also better (5.2% vs. 9.3%).
  • 22 innings is a very small sample size.

My conclusion is that Rodriguez was getting very lucky in the first half of the season, caught the eye of Duquette, and his luck evened out at OPACY instead of at Miller Park. The evidence is that in Milwaukee, K-Rod was giving up fly balls more frequently than other Brewers pitchers and yet those balls were leaving the yard less frequently:

  • Brewers relievers in the first half of 2013: 32.2 FB%, 10.8% HR/FB
  • K-Rod in the first half: 45.5% fly balls, 8% HR/FB

(Note: the above list is for the first half, not K-Rod's time in Milwaukee. The two splits are similar but not exactly the same, since he was with Milwaukee for a few weeks of the second half.)

That's called defying physics, and he could only do it for so long before luck caught up to him. If he'd been traded to AT&T Park, which suppresses homers, he maybe could've kept up his high-wire act. But he was traded to OPACY, which promotes home runs similarly to Miller Park. So with Baltimore his HR/FB rate regressed, shooting up to 16.1%, which pushed his SLG up even though he gave up fly balls less frequently. Thus the wailing and gnashing of teeth from O's fans who watched him give up five dingers (among many other extra-base hits).

There were other factors. K-Rod did give up harder contact in Baltimore, as shown by the increase in his line-drive rate (19% to 27%). His percentage of extra-base hits skyrocketed from 4.1% to 14.6%. Those are significant jumps and it indicates maybe an increase in the talent level from the NL Central to the AL East or just poorer pitching on K-Rod's part. As a result of the harder contact, his BABIP shot up from .259 to .357, and he gave up 11 runs in Baltimore vs. just three in Milwaukee.

But again, we can't read too much into his performance in Baltimore because of the small sample size of 22 innings. Since K-Rod is a free agent for 2014, it's important to understand how he'd do over a full season. He'd probably put up numbers better than what he did in Milwaukee in 2012: .241/.316/.393 with a 4.38 ERA. That ERA is inflated because K-Rod stranded so few baserunners in 2012. He'd not likely perform that poorly again, meaning the O's are likely to see some improvement if they re-sign him.

So yes, the O's should "kick the tires" on him, but they shouldn't make him a priority. A high strikeout rate is very useful at OPACY, but the walks balance out the K's: his career K/BB ratio of 2.83 is a tad worse than what O's relievers did this year (2.95). And as we've seen he's not a groundball pitcher, so OPACY will cause him to have an worse-than-average HR/FB rate.

He may be worth a gamble on a one-year contract, say, $1-2 million or so. There are two factors at play here: Rodriguez's is a Scott Boras client, but his poor second half likely scared many suitors away. These circumstances could balance out enough for the O's to get a good deal on an overlooked reliever.