If you were able to catch Joely Rodriguez pitch yesterday in the Arizona Fall League against Mark Appel, you probably have a low opinion of him right now. The game was broadcast(tape delayed) on MLB Network. He had no fastball command and was knocked out in the second inning when he reached his single-inning pitch count limit. If you saw Rodriguez pitch this year at Altoona, chances are you saw him struggle. In fact, if you’ve seen him any season besides 2013, there is a good chance you saw a poor pitching performance from him. So it seems like the question shouldn’t be what does the future hold for him, rather why is there even a question.
Rodriguez might be the toughest pitcher to figure out among prospects in the Pirates system. He has been around for six seasons now and his breakout year in 2013 was the only one in which he put up good stats. That usually doesn’t bode well for a pitcher’s future, but Rodriguez has a lot of fans among the people that watch games for a living.
Last year, I saw him pitch at West Virginia and he looked good, but nothing really special. Unlike yesterday when he was all over the place, he was pounding the strike zone in the game I saw. What I didn’t like that day was the fact his pitches had very little difference in velocity from his fastball, to his hard slider, to his change-up. In fact, almost every single pitch I saw during his five innings was in the 84-90 MPH range. I’ve seen numerous pitchers dominate a Low-A game using 90% fastballs in the 88-92 MPH range, just because they had good command of the pitch. Those pitchers tend to not succeed at higher levels using that same plan of attack. Left-handed pitchers can usually get by with even less at Low-A. That is something we have seen a lot of in the past in the Pirates system.
I watched that game last year with a couple scouts and they saw a totally different pitcher that I did. The guy who I wasn’t that impressed with, had them talking the next day, so I sat down and listened. Obviously the fastball command was a selling point, but every pitch he threw had movement on it and when he threw his slider and change, he was throwing them for strikes. Basically, my biggest concern, wasn’t a concern to them. They saw something special beyond the results and pitch speeds.
If you fast-forward the 2013 season, Rodriguez moved up to Bradenton and pitched well, which got him added to the Pirates 40-man roster and led to a promotion to Altoona for this season. That meant the Pirates obviously felt highly enough about Rodriguez that they thought someone could take him in the Rule V draft, despite the fact he had just a half season of High-A ball. So both scouts and the Pirates really liked him at that point.
In 2014, Rodriguez began the season in the Altoona rotation and did not do well. Through July 12th, he had a 4.44 ERA in 17 starts, with a 32:54 BB/SO ratio in 99.1 innings. He had allowed 103 hits, but that wasn’t out of line from his 2013 season, when he gave up 142 hits in 140 innings, finishing the year with a 2.70 ERA. Batters were getting hits, but they only had a .684 OPS at that point against him. So the higher ERA in Altoona probably came from timely hits in big spots, because batters weren’t getting many extra-base hits against him and his WHIP was league average. The league ERA was 4.35 over the entire season, so while a 4.44 ERA sounds high, his early results had him around the middle of the pack.
Rodriguez was moved to the bullpen after his 17th start, though he eventually returned to the rotation. He recently commented on his time in the bullpen, saying he found the move difficult to make. Over the final 50 days of the season, he pitched a total of 34.2 innings and had a 5.97 ERA. As a reliever, he had a 5.40 ERA in 18.1 innings and allowed 28 hits.
A funny thing happened between the end of the season and the point we are at now. Rodriguez has now made five starts in the AFL and has a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings, with 15 strikeouts. He didn’t have much command yesterday, but he has issued just four walks so far, so the control has been good. The strikeout total is a big surprise and as pointed out in this article by Carson Cistulli on Fangraphs(h/t Bucs Dugout), despite the small size the AFL season represents, striking out batters at a high rate in the league is a strong indicator of future success. It’s an article worth checking out because the difference is huge between the future of high strikeout pitchers in the league and ones with low strikeout rates. Rodriguez is mentioned by name in the article.
That is another good sign for Rodriguez, who received some strong praise from Jonathan Mayo during the telecast last night. This was before his poor performance in the second inning, so keep that in mind. Mayo said that Rodriguez came into the AFL as a pitcher that looked like a future #5 starter and now it looks like he could be more.
My personal opinion on Rodriguez is that he can be a #5, but you could also get a dominating lefty reliever. The reason for the latter prediction is that he has hit 97 MPH with his fastball in the past and in shorter outings, you could have a three-pitch reliever bringing mid-90’s heat with command that is usually strong. A possible future reliever obviously limits his prospect status, but that is a worst case prediction at this point.
In that MLB article linked above, Rodriguez said that he basically wiped the slate clean going into the AFL and wanted to attack the strike zone, keeping the ball down. He is willing to embrace the “pitch to contact” style the Pirates want from their pitchers. Quick outs and longer outings are better than high strikeout totals and shorter outings. The pitchers with above average stuff can always get strikeouts in big spots, but you don’t need to strikeout every batter to be successful. The results against some of the best prospects in the game are encouraging, small sample size or not.
It’s important to remember that Rodriguez will be 23 years old this upcoming season. So while he has been around for six years in the Pirates system already, he will still be young for whatever level he ends up at next year. I think he will be back in the Altoona rotation to begin the season and if he can carry his AFL success over to the regular season, you could soon see the pitcher that the Pirates, scouts and experts see when they look at Joely Rodriguez.