There have been a lot of positives to the start of the Brewers season–when you win 15 of your first 20, that’s bound to happen. Starting pitching has kept them in virtually every game. Seven players are posting an OPS over .800. The back end of the bullpen has been dominant to say the least.
And the anchor to that dominant bullpen, also conveniently filed under “Things I didn’t see coming in February”? Francisco Rodriguez.
Through 11 games and 11 innings, Rodriguez has yet to yield a run and has already surpassed his value from last season, which FanGraphs calculated at 0.5 even before his scoreless ninth inning on Monday night. His 13.09 K/9 ranks him third among all pitchers with at least 10 innings, and second among the reliever variety. When he’s come into the game, it’s been lights out for the opponent. He has four saves in one-run games (more than seven teams have in total saves) and leads baseball with eight saves.
He leads all MLB relievers in WAR and himself alone is worth one-fifth of the entire Brewers pitching staff’s WAR, despite only pitching in six percent of the team’s innings.
Am I surprised? Admittedly, yes. I MEAN WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON? But am I upset that the Worst Guys in Baseball have a dominant bullpen ace through 20 games? Not at all.
What’s made K-Rod so dominant through the first eighth of the season? We’ll look at two reasons: his changeup has been devastating and he’s been even more K-Rod than usual in two-strike counts.
K-Rod’s been awesome this season and so has his changeup. Below is opponents’ average against his change this season, compared to league average below it.
On top of that, he has been effective in getting batters to chase that pitch out of the zone. Good luck hitting that pitch down there, hitters.
Of course, it would be unreasonable for Rodriguez to hold up this type of production all season. If healthy, he will appear in around 60 more games, and some of those strikeouts will turn into walks, and not every fly ball will stay in the park.
According to the data at Brooks Baseball, his changeup thus far has more horizontal movement than at any point in his career and it’s getting more vertical movement than in years past, also. Throwing it at a 28.3 percent clip, his confidence and usage of the pitch are up, as well. A pitch that FanGraphs lists at worth 1.7 runs in 2012 and 4.8 runs last season is already 3.7 runs above average this season–on pace for a value of 30 runs (Cole Hamels led baseball in wCH last season at 28.6, for comparison).
Not only has Rodriguez relied on his changeup, but has been absolutely dominant in two-strike counts.
Thus far, he’s thrown 52 two-strike pitches, drawing swings 65.4 percent of the time despite only throwing 46.1 percent of two-strike pitches in the zone. That means hitters are chasing, and they’re chasing often. He’s induced eight swings-and-misses on two-strike pitches while only throwing 13 balls. Opponents are only hitting .125.
Here’s opponents’ swing rate with two strikes on them against K-Rod:
And here’s the contact they make in those counts off of those swings.
There is a method behind the 42.9 K%, looks like.
But part of the good news is that, so far, K-Rod hasn’t really even pressed his luck with close calls. The image below shows that the farthest hit ball has been a lazy fly ball to right field off the bat of Seth Smith to end Monday’s game.
Even with an expected regression, the signs are still looking good for K-Rod. His 13.09 K/9 may not hold up (unless he can keep up a 70 percent contact rate), but we can then expect it to drop down his career average, which is 10.96, whenever this regression kicks in. So even if he strikes out batters at his career mark for the rest of the season, he will finish with 11.28 K/9, his highest since 2007 with the Angels.
On top of that, his FIP and xFIP, which measure a pitcher’s performance by controllable factors rather than runs given up, are 0.98 and 1.51, respectively, indicating that his runs given up shouldn’t be skyrocketing any time soon.
The Brewers have been awesome. K-Rod has been awesome. Let’s appreciate that.