320 career saves. The single season save record. A World Series title and now completely reinvented. For years Francisco Rodriguez has labored to earn back a closing job. This season, while he may not be the same power pitcher he once was, he is showing that he has what it takes to last in the major leagues for a long time.
Over a decade ago, when K-Rod pitched for the Angels he had completely different stuff. While he could fool hitters at times, he also had a devastating fastball that according to fangraphs averaged in the mid-90s. If a hitter was guessing anything else, he had no chance hitting his fastball. Throughout this time, he became the game’s best closer.
But after being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, Rodriguez no longer has a guaranteed closer’s role. Although he was given rare opportunities to close games, his status as a 9th inning reliever was put into question as his ERA grew, while his velocity declined. He toiled through two seasons pitching for Baltimore and Milwaukee looking to find a way to earn an opportunity to finish games again.
In this time he has completely reworked his pitches. At his peak, K-Rod was a two pitch pitcher who concentrated on throwing a hard fastball and a slider. During his Angels years, these pitches were often over 90 percent of what he threw. After leaving the Angels in 2008, he moved completely away from his slider. He became focused on developing his curveball and changeup.
Though there were rough patches along the way, like his time in Baltimore and the start of 2012 with Milwaukee, everything for Rodriguez has clicked this season. Even with his average fastball velocity the lowest of his career at 89.6 through his first 21 games, he has regained his status as one of the premium closers in the game. He is not only commanding his fastball, but he is using his improved changeup more than ever before. Relying on his changeup on over 33 percent of his pitches he has been able to keep hitters off balance and remain nearly untouchable. Through the first month and a half of the season he has recorded a league leading 16 saves and has allowed only one earned run.
In an off-season in which no one wanted him, K-Rod has completely exceeded expectations. Instead of just being a veteran presence in the bullpen, he has again become a lock-down closer. Often when veterans lose velocity they are never the same, but this is not the case for Rodriguez. Instead of simply relying on what had worked, he has transformed into a new pitcher who is as dominant as ever. At 32 years old, the ever-changing K-Rod is showing that he is built to last.
Statistics Provided by Baseball Reference