Assessing 2009: The Francisco Rodriguez Signing
Hello, everybody. A brief introduction for me: my name is Dave Meisel. I'm a student at Hamilton College in upstate New York. And I am a diehard New York Mets fan. I'm young, but I've been around and aware pretty much since the Mets' run in 2000. The beginning of the Omar Minaya era was when I really got into it. You could say, though, that I was hooked when I watched Benny Agbayani put one out in Game 3 of the 2000 NLCS, the first baseball game I went to where I really knew what was going on.
I was there in 2006, when Beltran looked at the nastiest curveball I've ever seen. In 2007 I was at baseball practice when I got a text message alert: 7-0 Marlins after one inning. And I was there for 2008, watching the Mets strand Murphy at third with no outs in the ninth against the Cubs, blow win after win (for Santana in particular) and watching Wes Helms and Dan Uggla go back-to-back in the last game at Shea. And finally, I watched almost every game this year with unwavering intensity.
I've wanted to express a lot of thoughts about the Mets for some time. So I've decided to write a series, assessing the year 2009 in-depth. I'm going to delve pretty deep in my analysis with the good and bad. Then, I'll give my thoughts about going forward.
I think it's somewhat appropriate to start with the signing of the man who was supposed to be "our savior," Francisco Rodriguez.
During November and December of last year, I didn't know what I wanted the Mets to do about the bullpen. There were obvious solutions of Frankie, Fuentes, and J.J. Putz or Huston Street through trades. And, to be frank, while I wasn't originally sold on the K-Rod signing, it was the right move. He was a New York-intensity type of guy, expressed enthusiasm about pitching here, and seemed like a perfect fit for the Mets. The deal they gave him was arguably pretty cheap, considering he wasn't really in demand by any other team.
He has a very unique pitching style, does Rodriguez. He throws a fastball with average command that cuts to his glove side and tails to his arm side. It tends to get hit when it's lower in the zone, and can beat guys high. His power curve/slider was the rage when he came up in 2002. Since then, as he's become more of a "pitcher" as opposed to a thrower, he's gotten more break on it by taking about 5 MPH off of it (he throws it 76-82 now as opposed to 80-86 when he came up). He can turn it from more of a curve to a slider with two strikes, increasing the hard side-to-side break away from a right-handed hitter. He usually has plus command on it. And he has a devastating changeup that he throws between 83 and 88, with incredible fade away from a left-handed batter.
He will throw any pitch in any count...and I mean that. He will also work with what he's given, meaning, all three bases are open for him. He'll put runners on-we saw that in his second appearance of the season and all throughout it. But he has a propensity to really bear down with runners on. He will blow saves more than the very top tier (Which is essentially reserved for Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan) but doesn't blow a huge amount of saves and gets the job done in big spots. Additionally, he puts on a pretty good show as he enters the game, and finishes the game.
Coming into this year, people were concerned about his velocity. Word was that he was not healthy, but his agent stated that to develop the changeup, he had altered his delivery in a way that took some velocity off of his fastball, and that said velocity would be seen again this year. It didn't end up being an issue. He maxed out at 97 this year, dialed it up to 95 in a bunch of big spots, and lived at about 93 miles per hour.
The one thing that struck me this year is that his breaking balls were not thrown as frequently or as effectively as I remembered from seeing Frankie a handful of times as an Angel. According to FanGraphs, Frankie threw sliders last year at a 31.6% rate and only 1% curveballs. The year prior he'd thrown only sliders. This year, Rodriguez threw about 21% curves and no sliders. Additionally, said curves are costing Frankie .4 runs this year, whereas last year, his curveballs yielded +.4 runs and his sliders got him +2 runs. Even more telling is that in the 4 years prior, his sliders had gotten him between 7 and 12 runs per year.
His breaking ball has probably changed as he has developed as a pitcher. I believed as his changeup developed, he sought to finesse his breaking pitches more, causing them to evolve more from a hard slider to a 12-6 curve. While his changeup has been his most effective pitch in 2009, and at its peak effectiveness in his career, it's ultimately cost him somewhat as a pitcher. Yes, he now has three plus pitches, but he has become a different pitcher. It's probably better for him in the long run, taking stress off the arm, but I think it's visible why his peripheral numbers (namely WHIP) haved increased through the years.
Let's now look at this year. "The Kid" saved four games in April, giving fans some stress as early as his second appearance. It was the game where Brandon Phillips had been walked early in the inning. A grounder was hit to Wright with Phillips running on the pitch. Wright threw to first, and as he did so, Phillips headed for third. Delgado came off the bag as he took the throw (we see on replay that he didn't, but it was a clear mistake) and the Mets got zero outs on the play. Frankie walked another batter and then retired Laynce Nix on a ball hit to the track. In April Frankie also gave up a two-run homer to Jesus Flores before locking down a win against the Nats.
May was K-Rod's best month (the Mets' as well). He racked up 10 saves, won a game, and didn't give up an earned run. He was simply stellar, allowing just one baserunner an inning and getting saves with ease.
As June came, Frankie's season started to turn (as did the Mets'). On June 12, the turning point of the season, he was awarded a "blown save" that was simply tough luck. He retired Brett Gardner on a grounder to first, gave up a single to Derek Jeter on a changeup about 8 inches off the plate, struck out Johnny Damon, walked Mark Teixeira, and then popped up A-Rod. We all know the story from here. Two appearances later, he suffered his first legitimate blown save of the season at the hands of the Orioles (who, in fact, have the highest batting average of any team against Frankie in his career, historically giving him trouble). He also had the dubious honor of giving up Mariano Rivera's first career RBI.
July was an odd month for Francisco. He saved three out of four games, had a dominant appearance in the All-Star game, but appeared in only ten games and seemed out of whack in the games following the break, as he ended up having 3, 4, 5 days off at a time. This continued into August as he blew consecutive saves against the Padres and Cardinals. In the game against the Padres, he gave up a walk-off grand slam to Everth Cabrera which is half the reason his ERA is where it is (the other happened last night). This appearance could have been salvaged-on a double that tied the game, Brian Schneider seemed to have tagged the runner before he scored. Alas, the call was blown. Since then, Frankie appeared sporadically, getting some saves with ease, blown a few, and completely imploding on one against the Nationals last night.
Looking at this appearance rather quickly, I'm incredibly frustrated with the defense played behind Frankie (which has been bad all year-he's given up a TON of cheap hits that plays could have been made on). He had Adam Dunn on a 2-2 count up two runs with the bases loaded, but walked him, and then gave up a granny to Maxwell after having him 1-2. I think he may have lost some confidence here in the second half to throw all of his pitches, and also lost faith in his team.
People may chastise him for this. I however, have defended him the whole way. He has developed on the premise of pitching for a competitor, surrounded by talent, pitching frequently. All that was thrown out of whack this year. Rodriguez has had to adjust to players going down around him, long periods of time between appearances, and pitching in meaningless games. He has been relatively resilient, and if you look at it, he's been pitching more to contact in the second half, which is what the Mets have needed him to do in his appearances. Discounting his two implosions (totals: .2 innings, 11 runs, 5 hits, 3 walks) his ERA is 2.28.
What do I conclude from this year? Francisco Rodriguez has evolved as a pitcher from what he was when he came up. He is just about as effective, probably more against lefties than righties when in the past the opposite was the case. He clearly needs to pitch more often next year, which can happen with a manager who throws him in no matter what the situation to keep his juices going. And the guy will get it done in big spots. We've seen him do it: Saving every game against Philly without giving up a run, doing his job against the Yankees only to have Castillo blow it (in a game which had a playoff atmosphere to it) and locking down a game where he blew the save against the Pirates (giving up a 2-run bomb to Adam LaRoche), coming back after the Mets got him the lead a second time.
So, to conclude my first article, I beg all of you, have faith in the ninth. We have a rock at the back of our bullpen, a top-rate closer, and Frankie Rodriguez will remain that way through his tenure as a Met.
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