November 2, 2015
The Buyer's Guide
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” —Charles Darwin
During my time in the business world and in graduate school, it’s become more apparent to me that the strongest employees and students are not necessarily the smartest or most physically capable. Rather the successful are the ones who are most agile, the ones who can modify their styles to work effectively in different groups, the ones who can accept negative feedback and incorporate it into their daily lives.
In short, long-term success is often predicated on one’s adaptability.
This is also true in baseball. No matter one’s physical tools, sustained success ultimately depends on the physical and mental adjustments one makes. That’s not groundbreaking in any sense. Discussing the adjustments that players or teams make on a day-to-day basis is omnipresent within the sport. More interesting to me are the long-term adjustments that veteran players need to make in order to remain employable. How does an aging hitter cope with the fact that his bat speed has declined and his power isn’t what it used to be? How can a pitcher adjust to a 92 mph fastball when it used to sit 96-97 mph in the sixth inning? Those pitchers who can make such macro-adjustments are the ones who find success in their mid- to late-30s, while the ones who can’t are unemployed by the end of their prime.
Francisco Rodriguez was once a fastball-slider pitcher who featured a firebreathing mid-90s fastball and a vicious, knee-buckling slider. He struck out over 30 percent of the batters he faced and consistently posted sub-2.00 ERAs. The right-hander was virtually untouchable during the offensive explosion of the mid-2000s.
Now that he’s 33 years old and a 14-year veteran, K-Rod rarely eclipses the 90 mph mark and no longer throws a slider. He relies heavily on his changeup and his curveball. In fact, he only threw his fastball 45 percent of the time in 2015—more than a 15-percentage-point decrease from just three years ago.
Rodriguez exemplifies the adaptability that allows the rare veteran pitcher to remain successful. As his previous avenue of effectiveness dried up, he embarked on a long process of re-invention. It has finally coalesced into something rather special, too, as his 2.21 ERA is the fourth-lowest ERA of his long career and his lowest since 2010.
He’s now a soft-tossing reliever who gets by with command and guile, rather than just overpowering hitters, which is what he did during his youth. And that’s fascinating. Such long-term evolution often looks like nothing but decline. We can’t see the end product, the fact that K-Rod was becoming something different, rather than just the negation of what he was.
To prove how different the right-hander has become, it’s useful to note that no pitcher (min 50 innings) threw a higher percentage of changeups (42.8 percent) in 2015. In fact, only three pitchers have had a higher single-season changeup percentage than K-Rod since the beginning of 2002.
Those are the only three pitchers who have thrown a higher percentage of changeups in the past 14 seasons, so it’s hardly commonplace for a pitcher to rely so heavily on an offspeed offering. But Rodriguez can do that because he finally has increased his first-pitch strike percentage to over 60 percent. It rose over four percentage points to 63.4 in 2015, and it is nearly six percentage points higher than his career norm. The fact that he’s working ahead in the count more often allows him to avoid situations in which he’s forced to throw a below-average fastball in the zone. It allows him to get to his strength more frequently.
We can look at his velocity drop, his home-run issues, or his low .234 BABIP, but it ignores the broader picture. His 2.24 DRA illustrates the utter successfulness of his transformation. It was the eighth-best mark of any major-league pitcher who threw at least 50 innings this season, almost identical to Andrew Miller and better than Jake Arrieta. His 77 cFIP also projects him to be 23 percent better than average going forward, too.
This is ultimately a good situation for fantasy owners, as he projects to be the Brewers’ closer again in 2016. Many owners will shy away from him on draft day because he’ll be 34 years old and doesn’t have a traditionally overpowering profile. However, the overall picture seems to suggest that he’s poised for another successful season. As he adapts and learns to work with his new physical capabilities, he re-invents himself as a pitcher—and that new pitcher seems to be solid second-tier closer who should offer serious value on draft day.
BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY
For owners preparing for the upcoming fantasy season, Francisco Rodriguez should be someone to target in the later rounds, once other mid-tier closers come off the market at too high of price. If he is still a Milwaukee Brewer as of spring training—which seems likely, given the inability to trade him over the summer—he should have sneaky closing value. Dynasty owners will likely stay away because trading for closers is a fool’s errand; however, single-season owners will be wise to capitalize on the perceived “fluke” season and the value decline that comes along with aging pitchers.