The Sunday Baseball Column: Eduardo Rodriguez's new world

Rob Bradford
September 29, 2019 - 12:49 am
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Eduardo Rodriguez has graduated. That much became evident when sitting in the dugout with Rick Porcello in Texas last week.

“I was talking to Porc on the bench. He was one of the guys who would tell me, ‘You have to throw 30-plus starts, 200 innings. Thirty-plus starts, 200 innings.’ He would say the all the time,” Rodriguez said. “We were sitting on the bench and he said, ‘You getting your 30 starts and 200 innings before you leave me, bro.’ He would always say when I got 30-plus starts and 200 innings I would be graduating. He told me, ‘You made it.’ That was a great moment, especially for me. I’ve been his teammate since I got to the big leagues in 2015 and we played together for five years. It’s been a long time. He’s been a teacher, brother and everything.”

The student has learned well. And now he is just starting to reap the rewards of all those lessons.

Heading into Sunday there were the 19 wins, the 196 1/3 innings and the newly-minted title as ace of the Red Sox’ starting staff.

But after Sunday is when the conversation truly gets interesting when it comes to Rodriguez. 

The lefty is arbitration-eligible for two more years, having made $4.3 million this season. And now with the season Rodriguez has turned in his number will slowly be climbing toward another payroll problem for the Red Sox. There is the notion of actually bidding farewell to the starter after the 2022 season.

In the world of the Red Sox right now, Rodriguez’s existence has become more important than ever on multiple levels. It’s why the extension question should be asked.

“They haven’t done that with me,” said Rodriguez when asked if has been approached by the Red Sox about a contract extension. “If it happens, it happens. I still have two more years here. We’ll see how that goes. I love it here and I want to stay here for a long time. If they want me to, I’ll stay here. … I haven’t had that conversation yet so I don’t know how that feels.”

All of this is new to Rodriguez, but it’s time that all parties involved understand what is at stake when it comes to the 26-year-old. He has suddenly become the most certain commodity on a staff that has committed to nearly $80 million of uncertainty thanks to the injury history of Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi.

While there is always some uneasiness when it comes to committing long-term to pitchers of any age, this version of Rodriguez is something the Red Sox desperately need. It is the same feeling the organization prioritized when getting out ahead of Jon Lester’s financial future via a five-year, $30 million extension with a team option that didn’t make him a free agent until after the 2014 season.

It is the kind of maneuvering that can help manage the kind of uncomfortable payroll issues these Red Sox are starting at.

For now, however, the priority is just making sure 2019 is the trampoline for Rodriguez’s career most think it is.

“For me, it’s just being part of the team. That’s all for me. Go out there 35 days. I just want to be accountable and every time I go out there do my job,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think myself as the best or the No. 1 or whatever. For me, it’s just going out there and doing my part. That’s the way I see it.”

ECK HAS THE BEST 200-STRIKEOUT STORY

Now that Mike Minor found a way to manage his 200th strikeout — reeling in a bit of controversy along the way — there have been 24 pitches in big league history to finish their season with 200 strikeouts on the dot. One of the names is a familiar one: Dennis Eckersley.

While Minor’s accomplishment got a lot of play thanks to the dropped pop-up that allowed for the opportunity, the story pales in comparison to Eckersley’s big day back on the final day of the season in 1976.

“I needed eight and I got it in the fifth inning,” said Eckersley, who was pitching for the Indians against the Yankees at the time. “The crazy thing was that in the sixth inning there were guys on first and third and they were going to double steal. Fred Stanley was the hitter and I was going to punch him out at some point. Sandy Alomar Sr. was at first. Alan Ashby was the catcher so he called for a pitch-out. I didn’t know it was going to go straight to Frank Duffy at shortstop. So I threw, pitched out and got off the dirt. He hit me right in back of the head. It went off my (expletive) head. Imagine that? The next inning I got hit in the head. They carried me off. That’s why I’ll never forget it.”

Fortunately for Eckersley, he had managed to secure his 200th strikeout just before being beaned, fanning Gene Locklear in the fifth inning. 

“I just flipped it in the dugout,” he said of the big moment. “I was just like it was no big deal because I was going to get 250 the next year. That was my second year and I started off that season bad. They put me in the bullpen. I struck out (138) batters in the second half. That was as hard as I ever threw. It was important that I got 200 but I thought I would do it all the time.”

Eckersley was one of seven pitchers to manage 200 strikeouts that season. Conversely, heading into Sunday there have been 23 to manage the feat in 2019.

THE LAST PIECE OF CHRISTIAN VAZQUEZ’S PUZZLE

With a start Sunday Vazquez will tie Jarrod Saltalamacchia for most games caught by a Red Sox backstop since Jason Varitek’s 2008 season, playing the position in 119 games. And while the catcher won’t identify the departure Blake Swihart (and his playing time) as the springboard for the breakout season, Vazquez does make it clear that the new workload has been an enormous positive.

“I think I worked so hard in the offseason I knew this was going to happen soon. I worked my ass off in the offseason. I didn’t hit so much in spring training but I felt it was going to come,” he said. “I needed the chance to play more than 100 games. I can’t do anything on the bench. I want to pay every day and help the team. If I go 0-for-4 today I know what’s going to happen the next day, do an adjustment quick. If I don’t play the next day I have to wait two days. It’s the first time I’ve caught 100 games. It’s very cool.

“Just pride, man. I want to be the best catcher in the American League.”

The .274 batting average, .796 OPS and 23 homers are certainly notable. But it has been Vazquez’s defensive improvement which has been the true separator. His pop-time, for example, has jumped from 46th-best in the majors last season to 11th overall in 2019, with the pitch-framing finding a new level this time around.

So, what is left?

“Blocking. This year I had a lot of wild pitches,” he explained. “I want to be a wall.”

There seems to be a plan in place in order to accomplish that final goal.

“For him, he gets in trouble when he wavers from one solid active stance. When he becomes consistent in just one that’s when he’s at his best blocking,” explained Red Sox roving catching instructor Chad Epperson. “He has the ability to really stay compact. His feet are quick. His release is quick. The main thing is to blog the ball first. I just think that when he gets into his normal solid action stance, he’s on time. When he drifts from that it’s a little too wide, it’s a little too narrow, he gets his leg out there sometimes. But there is no doubt he is one of the better blockers I’ve seen since I’ve been a catching coordinator. It’s just the consistency.”

It appears the three-year extension (with a club option) agreed upon will be a win for the Red Sox, whose commitment to Vazquez in the final year of control (2022) is a palatable $7 million.

THE NEXT THING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT PITCHING

Staying ahead of the curve is Brian Bannister’s job.

So when we asked the Red Sox assistant pitching coach what the pitching world will be talking about heading into 2020 he was quick with an answer. (And it had at least a little to do with Tom Brady.)

“We’ve pushed the limits of velocity so high. Training methods. Lower pitch counts. More relievers. I won’t say velocity has peaked but we are getting closer toward the peak,” Bannister said. “Now mobility is becoming ever more important because it’s about quality of spin, quality of movement, the ability to maintain your body over the course of a long season, throwing at much higher velocities than you used to have to throw. You see Brady with the ‘Pliability’ shirts. Flexibility in the ankles, the knees, the hips, the backs. Guys that are able to commit to those kind of programs are able to maintain and execute better because the athletic demands on the field are so high at the moment relative to where they have been in the history of baseball. … At some point in their careers all pitchers to compete at what the game is requiring nowadays have to commit to mobility programs.”

In other words, keeping up with the next wave of pitchers is going to require more than just comparable radar gun or spin-rate readings.

“You start losing the ability to shape your pitches,” Bannister added. “You start losing the ability to generate that movement to two specific parts of the zone that get the elite hitters out these days, especially the way the ball is flying out. I think among all the pitchers with elite velocity and elite spin the ability to maintain themselves and move with quality is really the separator at the movement. So it’s biased toward the younger guys because you naturally have more mobility when you’re younger. As your collagen stiffens up over time and and you had innings on your body you have to work harder to maintain it all. It becomes more important as the velocity threshold creeps higher every year and the game gets younger as a result.

“It’s a conversation all over baseball. When the average velocity was 91 you could get away with losing some mobility year over year or at the end of a year. And now where the average velocity is 93.5 you get exposed really quickly if you have to compensate in your movements to generate that velocity and then you start losing pitch quality. The radar gun might stay the same and the spin rate might stay the same but you can’t get into the biomechanical position to get quality.”

(To Bannister’s point about where velocity is going, 77 pitchers averaged a fastball of 96 mph or better compared to 58 just two seasons ago.)

THE CHANGE ALEX CORA SEES COMING NEXT SPRING TRAINING

Appearing on the Bradfo Sho podcast, Cora reflected on the 2019 season but also offered some insight as to some changes he sees coming in 2020. One of the alterations has to do with attacking the non-stop wave of defensive shifts.

In short, when it comes to bunting vs. shifts Cora is tired of the talk and ready for some action.

“I think so,” said Cora when asked if he believed bunting was going to become more of a weapon in 2020. “Not everyone can hit a homer over four outfielders like Mitch Moreland. He didn’t beat the shift, he beat both shifts. If he can do that great. You have to start doing this in the minor leagues because you see teams overdoing it shift-wise in the minor leaguers so the players get used to the positioning. You have to make sure to stay on top of the ball, go the other way, bunt a few times. Have that weapon in your pocket.

“We talk about it in spring training but I think it’s easier said than done. In spring training whenever we get shifts we want guys to bunt to get used to it. You can’t just go out there and do it during the season. It’s not that easy. You bunt it back to the pitcher that’s the last time you’re going to bunt.”

The major league average for percentage of times teams shifted jumped from 17.4 last season to 25.4 in 2019. Four years ago the number was 13.8 percent.

Strangely, there were fewer bunt hits this season than any year since 1984.

SOME OTHER STUFF …

- Brandon Workman gave up one home run all season. One in 70 1/3 innings. That came on May 14 when Charlie Blackmon hit a curveball into the centerfield stands at Fenway. “I’ve thrown a lot worse pitches than that this year,” Workman lamented. The pitcher who threw the most innings while also allowing no more than one homer? Darwinzon Hernandez who totaled 30 1/3 big league innings.

- An interesting offseason regimen by Red Sox rookie Trevor Kelley. He puts up dummies on either side of the plate to simulate batters and then places three tees across the plate with a net behind the setup. The goal is to throw pitches in the gaps in between the tees. “ It works for me,” the sidewinding Kelley said. “I’ve been doing it for the last three years. I did it on my own. It’s just a visual that works.”

- In an effort to find some more velocity Brian Johnson is planning on incorporating the “Driveline” workouts into his offseason. The program — which White Sox’ pitcher Lucas Giolito credits for taking his career to another level — shortens a pitcher’s arm action. Trevor Bauer is also a big proponent of the strategy. (For more on the "Driveline" program, click here.)

- Marco Hernandez has played outfield for just one game in his life, manning left field for the Triple-A PawSox. But now he’s headed to the Dominican Winter League to give it a whirl. His plan: To make the Red Sox very aware of how the position is fitting right out of the gate. “I’ll try and play and learn to play outfield so I can be more valuable. If I feel comfortable I will let them know right away,” he said. 

- One of the biggest takeaways from the Red Sox’ owners press conference Friday should have been John Henry’s revelation that he and Dave Dombrowski didn’t see eye to eye when it came to how the 2019 team should be built. Yet despite the disagreement, Henry allowed Dombrowski to execute his strategy. It’s how we ask owners to operate, letting the baseball decision-makers do their jobs. The flip-side is that if such decisions are allowed when they don’t work those making the judgments will be put in the cross-hairs. That’s what happened here. It is a dynamic that should remain in place, with clear credit and blame given to one person when it comes to baseball operations.

- Want a small sample of how Tampa Bay thinks a bit more outside the box than most? They are the only team that tilts up the front of their cage during batting practice in order to eliminate the negative reinforcement that might come with hitters launching balls up into the netting. The strategy is, of course, a product of encouraging launch angle.