When your offense is as hot as a February evening in northern Ohio, you need the other aspects of your game to hold serve. The Cleveland Indians have skirted out to a 21-19 record through 40 games with no help from an offense that is dead last or close to last in virtually every offensive category that matters. This is, in part, thanks to some fortune and a lot of pitching success. The success on the mound is especially significant considering 40% of the Indians’ starting rotation is on the injured list.
The buoys keeping the Indians’ pitching staff afloat are three likely suspects — Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Shane Bieber — and one less than likely suspect. Jefry Rodriguez, a key piece in the deal that sent Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals this winter, has stepped in and patched a few holes with a string of impressive outings.
In fact, patching a few holes may be understating just how well Rodriguez has performed. Across four starts and 24.2 innings pitched, he holds a 2.92 ERA. This is over a full run lower than his career minor league ERA. Though his peripherals show that his 24.2 innings have been littered with fortune, the method in which he has accomplished a brief swig of success is notable.
The foremost contention against Jefry Rodriguez’s prospect status revolves around his inability to find strikeouts. Though he flirted with acceptable strikeout rates at various points in the minors, his major league tenure leaves a lot to be desired in that department. Six strikeouts per nine innings is worrisome, especially considering his arsenal. A heater in excess of 95 miles per hour on average would suggest strikeouts shouldn’t be hard to find. That is, unless there is an obvious lack of a secondary offering, as is the case with Jefry.
Despite having a firmly unpolished breaking ball and a changeup that is borderline unusable, Rodriguez can scrape and claw his way to decent results with his fastball and sinker combination. He has done so, at least in a limited sample size, by virtue of contact management.
At first glance, Rodriguez’s contact mitigation skills appear poor. He yields an average exit velocity of 89.6 miles per hour this season, which is higher than league average. But contact management goes beyond simple contact authority. Over half of the balls he’s allowed to be put in play have been of the ground ball variety.
Essentially, Jefry Rodriguez has utilized his limited repertoire in a fashion that masks his inability to generate an acceptable amount of swings and misses. While the small sample size caveat bears repeating, it’s at the very least an encouraging trend. Add in the context of it being a skill that has transferred over from the minor leagues and there’s a little more room for optimism.
The value of keeping hitters on the ground is simply less damaging outputs. On the 41 ground balls induced by Rodriguez, the wOBA allowed is a mere 0.163. On the other 36 types of contact allowed, that number skyrockets to 0.447. Hitters have been almost three times as effective against Rodriguez when getting the ball off the ground. If advanced statistics aren’t your thing, batting average against reveals a similar trend. On ground balls, hitters have a 0.175 average and on other contact that figure leaps to 0.400.
Of course, drawing conclusions from small sample sizes is unwarranted. Diving deeper would reveal that Jefry Rodriguez has been a tad fortunate on balls in play, supporting the inflation that his FIP and xFIP marks signify. The moral here, though, is that he hasn’t found a brief dose of success through cloak and dagger sheer luck. It can be attributed to managing contact effectively.
Without a bona fide secondary offering, Rodriguez will need to keep generating ground ball rates in excess of 50%. His minor league history tells us this proposition is within his reach. If he can continue to generate ground balls, his floor is considerably higher than expected. If he can develop just one of his secondaries to be serviceable, preferably the curve, there’s an enticing ceiling that could be attained through a small strikeout spike in addition to his ground ball barrage.