Yesterday in this space, I wrote about the Pirates problem with the sixth inning. Today, I’m going to write about one potential solution.
The cliff notes version of Friday’s story is that the Pirates starting pitchers have collectively turned into pumpkins in the sixth inning, and Nick Kingham nicely dovetailed into that trend by allowing three runs in the sixth frame on Friday night.
The problem is more multi-layered than starting pitchers that can’t go deep into games because to this point, the Pirates’ bullpen has actually had worse outcomes than the starters in the sixth.
Friday, Clint Hurdle called on Edgar Santana to clean up for Kingham, and he did, recording two outs on five pitches to finish the frame. Santana is one option for the Pirates in the sixth inning, and he’s a good one. Since giving up two runs in 0.2 innings in Chicago on April 10, he’s pitched 8.1 innings and allowed two runs (2.16 ERA) while striking out 10 and walking three.
We’ve written extensively about Santana at Pirates Prospects, and his rapid ascension through the minors after signing at the almost unheard of age of 19 out of the Dominican Republic.
But the Pirates have another option for the sixth inning that’s pitching well, and it’s someone that we haven’t spent nearly as much time taking about. That’s 28-year-old Dominican right-hander Richard Rodriguez.
When the Pirates signed Rodriguez on Dec. 7, it didn’t exactly come with a lot of fanfare.
Rodriguez had come up in the Houston Astros organization, where he made it to Triple-A as a 24-year old in 2014. That year, he posted a 0.882 WHIP, a .190 batting average against, a 21 percent K rate and a 5.6 percent walk rate while maintaining a 3.49 ERA.
He seemed poised to break through into the majors, but was left exposed and unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft. Then, the following June, the Astros traded him to the Orioles for cash.
In a new organization, it was more of the same, with Rodriguez putting up stellar secondary numbers in addition to a 2.53 ERA in 2016 and a 2.42 ERA in 2017. It wasn’t until September of 2017 that the Orioles gave Rodriguez his first taste of the majors. It was a sour one.
In 5.2 innings last September, he gave up nine runs on 12 hits. Four of them were home runs (one by Jose Osuna). He walked as many as he struck out (three) and opponents hit .444 against him. He didn’t even finish out the month, getting designated for assignment on Sept. 17 despite still having all three options.
So, expectations were low for Rodriguez with the Pirates, but he had certainly shown the ability to get hitters out at the Triple-A level, and outside of his short September stint with the O’s, he’d never really gotten a chance to see if he could get things to translate to the majors.
When the Pirates recalled Rodriguez from Indianapolis on April 14, the bullpen was in shambles and it had the feeling of a “what do they have to lose” move.
But Rodriguez had quietly gotten off to the same kind of hot start in Indy that he’d shown with Norfolk over the last two years. He was able to strike people out, keep walks down, and not give up many hits.
This time, Rodriguez has gotten that combination to translate to the majors perfectly. In 9.1 innings with the Pirates, he’s struck out 15, walked one (intentionally) and has a .250 batting average against for a 1.07 WHIP — despite a .429 BABIP. His FIP is a near-sparkling 0.30.
The numbers practically jump off the page, even if his stuff doesn’t. Rodriguez only has two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a curveball. The fastball isn’t all that hard at about 93 or 94 MPH, but it does have some arm-side run. The curveball comes in at about 80 MPH with good separation and a straight-down break. It’s a fine repertoire, but it’s not overly impressive on its own.
What Rodriguez has done so well is to command his pitches and hit his spots. He prefers throwing his fastball up and in to right-handers, with the curveball falling to the low, outside corner.
It’s a tough combination, because hitters looking for soft stuff away can get 94 in their ear, and when they do get to his curveball, the break gives it extreme ground-ball tendencies.
So what’s been so different about Rodriguez’s stint with the Pirates than last September?
It’s his command, which has always been good throughout his career, but for whatever reason, left him last September. By being able to throw either pitch for a strike, but also stay out of the heart of the plate, Rodriguez has hitters in swing mode instead of looking for a free pass. That’s a good thing, because both of his pitches have around a 20 percent whiff rate.
“The core is to make sure you’re getting strikeouts and eliminating runners on base,” Rodriguez said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “That’s the plan — making sure that I’m pitching to the glove and not missing up in the zone, because here in the big leagues, you can’t miss. There’s consequences to it.”
Rodriguez also said that being cut by the Orioles and getting an early start to his offseason gave him some extra motivation to come into 2018 healthy and in the best place he possibly could be.
“I think in Rich’s case, there’s maturity there that’s come without Major League experience,” Hurdle said. “He’s had to show some grit, some resolve. The (MLB) numbers were hard last year. … To go home, to honestly self evaluate, and more importantly, whether it was his agent or whether it was word of mouth, to find a place where he could grow and have a real opportunity. This game is full of where teams say you’re going to have an opportunity and then things can change. That’s not the team’s fault. They can change and then that opportunity’s not there by the time you get to Spring Training.”
In the Pirates organization, he found that new opportunity, and he’s now set on taking it.
“It definitely feels like a fresh start,” Rodriguez said. “The Pirates, they’re showing a lot of trust and belief in me. They’re providing the opportunity to be up here. Now my part is to make sure I’m doing my part.”
Could Rodriguez be the answer for the sixth inning? If he pitches like the pitcher he’s capable of being, it’s possible.