To say that the Detroit Tigers' rookie pitcher Bruce Rondon has had an up-and-down spring training is an understatement. Rondon came to spring training as the heavy favorite to close for the Tigers in 2013, but he soon looked to become baseball's latest victim of the hype machine.
However, Rondon has proven over the last two weeks that he can eventually live up to the hype. Skipping an appearance due to his struggles turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
To take a look back from the beginning, the hype surrounding Rondon started back on Oct. 30 when Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski gave a glowing review of his potential. Dombrowski told members of the media (via Chris Iott from MLive.com) that:
"This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer," Dombrowski said. "Normally you're not going to thrust that in a young guy's hands and say automatically, 'That's your job,' but it would not surprise me if he earned that job.
"There are not many arms like this. And he cherishes that kind of role."
Following that statement, the media and fans started to overanalyze every aspect of Rondon's career and his ability to save games in the minor leagues.
Rondon's 5.1 walks per nine innings (BB/9) ratio in the minors showed that he had a wild side to his pitching and needed to work on his control. His supporters pointed to the fact that he had improved his BB/9 ratio from 7.6 in 2011 to 4.4 in 2012. Meanwhile, his detractors pointed out that in eight innings at Triple-A last season, he struggled with his control and had a 7.9 BB/9 ratio.
Still, there was a contingent of media members who thought the Tigers wouldn't risk having a rookie closer in such a crucial, World Series-contending year.
Once it was apparent that the Tigers would enter spring training with Rondon as the hands-down favorite to close, the positive articles started to come out about his fastball's ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun and the experience he gained closing in the minors.
Even the players started to buy into how much talent Rondon has. Tigers catcher Alex Avila spoke of Rondon's talent on Feb. 14 after the first bullpen session:
"I saw what everybody has been telling me," Avila said Wednesday about catching Rondon's first bullpen session of spring training.
"With the kind of stuff he has, he's a dynamic player. He's a game-changer."
"He wouldn't be in this position if people didn't think so."
After all the buildup, could Rondon live up to the heightened expectations?
Rondon started spring training terribly, throwing balls and primarily relying on his fastball instead of mixing in breaking balls.
As of Mar. 3, Rondon's pitching line was four games, 3.2 innings, five hits, three earned runs, five walks and six strikeouts, with an earned run average (ERA) of 7.36 (via Detroit Free Press).
After four games, the Tigers had Rondon skip his next appearance to work on fixing his mechanics, which turned out to be the best thing for him. It was during this time that the media started turning their focus onto veteran closers. Being able to focus on his pitching away from the spotlight allowed him to get back to basics.
According to CBS Sports' Danny Knobler on Mar. 5, the Tigers were trying to find a veteran pitcher:
With hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon already showing he can't handle the job, and with no other good options available in their own camp, the Tigers are already pushing hard to find a closer on the trade market, according to major league sources.
After the attention shifted away from Rondon, he had nothing to lose—he could solely focus on pitching and not competing for the closer position. He quietly started to pitch with confidence, and began to demonstrate why the team thought he could close in the first place.
Since his rocky start, the transformation of Rondon has been remarkable and can be seen through his pitching line. Overall through Mar. 16, Rondon has appeared in eight games, pitched 7.2 innings and lowered his ERA to 3.52. He's also given up nine hits, has six walks and 13 strikeouts.
While Rondon is still a little too wild, he has improved greatly over the last few weeks and showed that he can handle the closer role as long as he continues to pitch the way he has been as of late.
It appears that Rondon does indeed have the ability to meet the expectations and the early hype surrounding him.
*All statistics are as of Mar. 17
**All statistics are from baseball-reference.com