>Besides the US dollar and Luke Wilson, something else has suffered a steady decline over the past few years, though this thing can’t be quite as easily found on a sidewalk in Los Angeles. At least not anymore. I’m referring to the gradual downward slide of Francisco Rodriguez.
Sometimes lost in the shuffle of injuries and replac-Mets was disappointing performance of Omar Minaya’s trophy piece from the 2008 off-season. When Frankie inked with the Mets last winter, some whispers/rumblings/sports shouting about his decline could be heard. Diminishing fastball velocity. Violent motion. Histrionics. Patchy beard. Lots of walks and fewer K’s, specifically – neither of which bodes well for a pitcher, particularly one whose job is to primarily pitch in high leverage situations. On the surface, things continued to get worse in 2009 – you can see Frankie’s declining K/9 and BB/9 rates compared to the league average from 2006 through 2009:
Besides the strikeouts and walks, Frankie also suffered a Harvey Dent/Two Face like season split. After an untouchable first half (1.90 ERA in 42.2 innings), Frankie super nova-ed post All-Star break (6.75 ERA in 25.1 innings). If you switch to from ERA to the slightly more accurate run average (RA), the dropoff is less precipitous – 2.96 RA for the 1st half, 7.11 RA for the 2nd – but still Benitez-esque. The combination of declining strikeouts, inclining walks, and a miserable second half left many Met fans worried about Francisco’s performance in 2010.
However, as often is the case, things aren’t quite as ominous as they seem. Or maybe the faint scent of spring training (baseball!) is causing me to be more optimistic. Whatever the reason, let me take today and tomorrow to present bits of evidence that could allay some fears about Frankie Rodriguez.
Cause of worry #1: The rising walks
In 2009, Frankie set a career high in walks – but he also set a career high in intentional walks, which helped to balloon his overall walk rate. While the intentional walks shouldn’t be totally discounted from his overall performance – they indicate K-Rod was too often getting himself into situations where he needed to intentionally walk people – they do reveal that his wildness might be overstated. If you knock out Frankie’s IBB, his BB-IBB/9 compared to the league average BB-IBB/9 looks like this:
His non-intentional walks* in 2009 are actually down from their peak in 2007 – though nowhere near as low as they were in 2006. The gradual rise in his BB/9 may be an illusion caused by the intentional bases on balls. Rodriguez does indeed walk too many hitters – that’s no illusion – but he managed to get away with it in 2007 and 2008. No reason he can’t be successful again in 2010. That is, except for the more troubling cause of worry #2.
Cause of worry #2: The falling strikeouts
The dropping K rate is more foreboding. If this was a slasher movie, the rising walks should cause as much worry as being in a house alone at night. The falling strikeouts should cause as much worry as being alone in an isolated cabin in the woods at night. And you’re taking a shower. While ominous music plays and the door creaks open. Frankie could get away with all the walks because he was striking out batters by the dozens. The fewer batters a pitcher strikes out, the less wriggle room he has. He is forced to rely more and more on his defense to pick up outs, and batted balls turn into outs much less than strikeouts. Fewer strikeouts are never a good thing for a pitcher, particularly for relievers who often come in with men on base.
Where did all the strikeouts go? To start, the rate at which batters have swung and missed at a K-Rod’s offerings has been falling since 2007 – most notably on pitches outside of the strike zone (see graph to the right). His contact rate on strikes has been slowly dropping, while his contact rate on balls outside the zone has been rapidly rising. It appears that the pitches he has been throwing for balls have become more hittable and thus cause less swings and misses. This could account for the declining strikeouts, as batters are no longer flailing away at unhittable balls. It’s not good news, but it might not be all bad news. The hitters might instead be flailing away at barely hittable balls.
Strikeouts aren’t the only good way for a pitcher to get outs – they are the most desirable way, but they’re not the only good way. Whereas essentially 100% of strikeouts result in outs, 97% of infield flies drop into gloves.* Infield fly balls are the second most effective way to record outs, and Frankie’s infield fly ball rate has been steadily climbing the past three seasons, up to 18.3% in 2009, third best in the majors (among pitchers with at least 60 innings). Inducing pop ups is a useful strategy; fellow countryman Johan Santana has also combated his declining K rate with an increase in infield flies. If you can’t K them up anymore, getting them to loft one soft works about as well. But is Frankie doing it on purpose? Is he throwing pitches with the intention of getting more infield flies? In other words, can we expect him continue to do the same in the future?
*I know who you’re thinking about. Seriously, 97% do turn into outs, Luis Castillo and Carlos Delgado notwithstanding.
We need to know if infield flies are simply the result of luck, or if can they be influenced by the pitcher. It turns out, like everything in baseball, it’s a bit of luck and skill. I took the 52 pitchers who threw at least 160 innings in both 2008 and 2009 and compared their infield fly ball rates from both years. The year to year correlation for infield flies from 2008 to 2009 was .38 – not Charles Atlas strong, but good. Pitchers probably have some level of control over infield flies. I can’t say with absolute certainty that K-Rod was trying to get people to pop up, but it is a possibility and maybe even likely. The fewer swings and misses might just reflect Frankie nibbling a bit more and trying to induce more weakly hit balls. The walks may also be a reflection of this nibbling. Strikeouts are better, but if he can’t do that anymore then infield flies are indeed the way to go.
So the walks may not be as bad as previously thought, and while the strikeouts have gone down, the infield flies have gone up – things for Rodriguez aren’t as bad as they initially seem. His fastball velocity increased and his change-up was the fifth hardest pitch to make contact with in 2009 – and he didn’t really throw a change-up until 2007. Frankie may not be racking up the strikeouts anymore, but he’s adapting – maybe into an infuriating nibbler, but he is certainly changing.
But that’s not all I have about Frankie. Check in here tomorrow for Saving K-Rod: Part 2, where you’
ll find out more about Frankie’s poor second half and what monkeys can teach us about why people overpay closers like Rodriguez. Seriously – monkeys.