Wild Frankie’s Circus Story

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There’s something inherently unnerving about Francisco Rodriguez.

Or, alternatively, everything about Francisco Rodriguez is inherently unnerving.

Maybe it’s his motion, that violent delivery where his body collapses towards first base as if every ounce of his six-foot frame was required to propel the ball towards the plate. Or maybe it’s the elaborate prelude to his mound performance — taking a sip from a full bottle of water and tossing the remainder away as he exits the pen; the slow jog to the mound, the warmup pitches; having the third baseman fire the baseball to him as hard as possible with the last toss around the infield, and then slamming his glove into his raised left leg with a shout. His routine seems to be as much about getting emotionally warmed up as it is about getting physically warmed up.

And maybe that’s it right there. Maybe it’s just that so much of Frankie Rodriguez’s on-field persona seems to be barely restrained emotions. In his set position, just for a moment, he is calm — then he explodes towards the batter. He lives in the celebration, the screams and pointing to the sky in victory. He dies in the overwhelming agony of a defeat — he called Saturday’s three run outing the “worst performance I’ve ever had in my entire life,” which may be a bit hyperbolic for someone with a few playoff implosions to his record. He seems to pitch for the adrenaline; Rodriguez seems to honestly believe that putting runners on base is just part of his game, that he needs the extra threat to boost his performance. Maybe he really does. Let the Riveras and Hoffmans remain cool and collected and soothe our nerves; Francisco Rodriguez is the human cannonball. He exists to put everyone on the edge.

When evaluating closers, their percentage of saves locked down isn’t the best method, as not all saves are created equal. A three-out save up three runs is nowhere near as difficult to achieve as a five-out save up one run — teams win the first scenario about 97% of the time, and win in the second scenario about 83% of the time. But both are considered saves; it’s not a great statistic, or even a good one. To misquote Bruce Springsteen, windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor, closets are for hangers, and the save statistic is for complaining about.

That being said, looking at the percentage of saves locked down is a decent way to see how reliable a closer feels — not how good he actually IS, but more how trustworthy he feels. Basically it’s a decent, if junky, measure for how likely he is to raise your blood pressure. For example, here are the career save percentages of certain relievers (just a handful I randomly decided to look up):

Mariano Rivera – 90%
Joe Nathan – 90%
Joakim Soria – 90%
Trevor Hoffman – 89%
Jonathan Papelbon – 89%
Jose Valverde – 87%
Billy Wagner – 86%
John Wetteland – 84%
Armando Benitez – 83%
John Franco – 81%

That list looks about right. Rivera, Nathan, and Soria are the ones that are, by reputation, the least prone to meltdowns. On the lower end, Armando Benitez and John Franco combined to give Mets fans heart attacks for over a decade.

Since becoming a full time closer in 2005, Francisco Rodriguez has locked down 88% of his saves, putting him just between Rivera and Wagner in conversion rate — that’s the good news. He was never at the elite level, but he was just a notch below.

However, since joining the Mets in 2009, Rodriguez has converted 83% of his saves, putting him firmly in Armando Benitez land — which is the bad news. His save rate was 83% in 2009, and it’s 83% in 2010. That’s a lot of raised blood pressures and high wire acts gone horribly wrong.

The odd thing is . . . Rodriguez hasn’t pitched all that poorly this season. He’s definitely pitched much better than he did last season. His strikeout rate is the highest it’s been since 2007, his walk rate is the best of his career, his home run rate is below his career line, and Rodriguez has thrown more first pitch strikes than ever before. He’s essentially made up for lost velocity with improved control, and it’s working. His ERA is sitting at 2.57, and his FIP at 2.88. Most of the damage to his stat line has come from an inordinate number of hits allowed, something that I suspect has a bit more to do with luck, the outfield expanses and lack of foul ground at Citi Field, and Mets defense than it does with Rodriguez. He is quietly having a good season — at least between the implosions.

But it hasn’t felt like a great season for Frankie Rodriguez. It seems that with that vanishing changeup and the little breaking ball he can get over or bury in the dirt, Rodriguez should be able to dominate like the best do. He should shut the other team down, 1-2-3, night in and night out.

But in games like Friday’s and Saturday’s, watching Francisco Rodriguez pitch is like watching David Blaine do, well, whatever it is that David Blaine does. There’s this slight sense that each one puts himself into all sorts of unnecessary peril just for the rush and the attention. I see someone put themselves in that sort of danger — and that’s what Rodriguez seems to love to do — and I find that a tiny part of me is almost rooting for poetic justice instead for the Mets, rooting for David Blaine to get stuck in the handcuffs underwater simply because HANDCUFFING YOURSELF UNDERWATER IS A BAD IDEA. Part of me just wants to believe that the universe is a just place, where bad ideas are rewarded with poor results. And when Rodriguez is putting man after man on base . . . sometimes I find a tiny part of myself almost rooting against him, if only because he’s slowly tightening the cuffs and submerging himself farther and father underwater. I almost want to see him fail, just so he stops putting himself in danger, as illogical as that statement is.

But that’s just the pitcher Rodriguez is. Everything about Frankie Rodriguez is a little bit wild, a little bit over the top, from his goggles to his patchy beard to his delivery. He appears to need the emotions, the danger, the whole high wire act, in order to perform. He’s not a fireman; he’s a fire eater. He can be irritating and nerve wracking, but that’s not the point. He’s not just here to save the game. He here to thrill us, too.

I’m not one for magic tricks. I’ll just take the saves, thanks.

Image via Keith Allison’s Flickr.

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5 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

5 responses to “Wild Frankie’s Circus Story

  1. Anonymous

    >Insightful article. My first awareness of Frankie was when he was the 8th inning guy for the Angels in the whatever-year world series. I liked him then because he was entertaining to watch, with his goggles and hyper-active antics on the mound. He was fun. Lately it hasn't been a whole lot of fun watching Frankie pitch, and all the emotional stuff isn't nearly so appealing. The pace of baseball makes it more desirable for the players to keep their emotions under control; baseball is a game of control, with long periods of slowly building tension relieved by fitful bursts of frenetic activity. Even the 9th inning of a 1-run game isn't meant to be played at the same level of action as an end-to-end hockey game.That said, I could live with K-rod's quirks if he would just slam the door with a little more consistent certainty. The issue, I think, is substance over style.

  2. Patrick Flood

    >Agreed. I actually think Frankie Rodriguez has been getting a bit unlucky this season, particularly in terms of softly hit balls falling in. The David Eckstein game-tying single in San Diego was a dribbler up the middle that was perfectly placed. Otherwise, he's actually been pitching much better this season. Walks are down, K's are up, HR are at his normal level. I expect him to put together a big second half — and then his antics will be a bit less irritating.

  3. Anonymous

    >I'd love it if K-rod put together a big second half. I'd love it, too, if Jason Bay shook off his slump in the second half; if Carlos Beltran was available and played like Carlos Beltran in the second half; if Ike Davis had a resurgence of hitting in the second half; if Johan Santana found his groove in the second half; if the Mets were to acquire another dependable starter for the second half; and if David Wright, Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan, Jon Niese and Mike Pelfry all played as well as they did in the first half, in the second half.If just those few, simple things could happen the Mets would be just fine. That's not too much to hope for, is it?

  4. Patrick Flood

    >It sounds reasonable right? I do figure that someone on that list will get injured — because someone always gets injured — but everything else seems possible. Adding another starting pitcher would be key, too, and the catchers are a bit iffy.But, of course, they are still the Mets. We'll see.

  5. Anonymous

    >Hi Patrick,Great blog, just started reading it (thanks to link from MetsBlog about your WAR post). I really enjoy it. With regards to Eckstein's hit up the middle and K-Rod's "struggles" this year, perhaps he could help himself out by not falling so far towards the first base line…

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