Francisco Rodriguez was once one of the most elite closers in baseball.
He burst onto the scene as a baby-faced 20-year-old with the Anaheim Angels, making five regular season appearances in late September. He then came out of the pen 11 more times for manager Mike Scioscia during their run as eventual World Series Champions. K-Rod’s mid-90’s fastball and wipeout slider made him nearly untouchable.
Now he’s no longer 20, has a fastball that barely reaches 90 on the radar gun, and that wicked, video-game-like slide piece is long gone.
Detroit Tigers Facing K-Rod Dilemma
K-Rod finds himself as the closer for the Detroit Tigers, well beyond the prime of his career. And after Sunday’s 8-6 loss, featuring his second blown save in as many nights against the Oakland Athletics, manager Brad Ausmus now faces a dilemma.
Something has to be done. Changes need to be made. K-Rod, he of 437 career saves, is the focal point of this predicament the bullpen-less Tigers are in. They’re now juggling a league-worst 5.87 ERA with a faulty closer, a perfect recipe for disaster.
Rodriguez, in his age-35 season, has appeared in 13 games so far this season. He’s already botched four save opportunities, to go along with a pathetic 1-4 record and 8.49 ERA.
In his postgame presser, Ausmus acknowledged that the Tigers might have to switch things up. “He’s not closing out games. It’s something he’s done for a decade. So I think it’s very obvious that it’s not the same Frankie.”
Ausmus hit the nail right on the head; the Tigers aren’t seeing the same Frankie anymore. That upper-90’s heater he once boasted has transformed into an 88 mph beach ball. Opposing hitters are batting .353 against his fastball this year.
Part of the reason Rodriguez has enjoyed so much success as he’s gotten older has been the implementation of the changeup. He didn’t throw it a whole lot earlier on in his career, thanks to those wicked breaking pitches. His changeup now serves as his strikeout pitch, but even that has been faulty this year.
According to fangraphs.com, K-Rod has thrown 92 fastballs this year and 91 changeups. He throws his change piece at an average of 83.6 mph. There isn’t a whole lot of differential when it comes to the frequency and speed of his fastball and changeup. Hitters are able to sit back on both pitches, aware that it’s either going to be one or the other.
The Tigers have a few viable in-house options if they decided to demote K-Rod from the closer’s role. Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson, the current seventh and eighth inning men, would be serviceable closers for a team in desperate need of stability. Alex owns a 2.25 ERA through 12 innings thus far, limiting hitters to a .196 average. His last earned run came on April 19 against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Justin’s been equally impressive through his 15 outings in 2017. He’s 1-1 and owns a 1.32 ERA, racking up 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings logged. His upper-90’s fastball and above-average off-speed pitches as a southpaw make him an ideal closing candidate. He’s also yet to surrender a hit to a left-handed batter.
The fanbase wanted Joe Jimenez, one of the Tigers best prospects in a thin minor league system, for an audition as the team’s future closer. He’s had two stints so far with the big league club, and he’s surrendered at least two earned runs in three of his five outings. While he did flash some potential, it’s clear he’s not big-league ready just yet.
Whatever path the Tigers decide to go down, whether it be promoting a new closer or getting the job done by committee, it’s clear Rodriguez is no longer the answer. A 1-2-3 inning is now hard to come by, and the sure-handed, dominant ninth inning man he once was is now just a faint memory. He’s aware of it, the Tigers are aware of it, and opposing hitters are aware of it.
It’s a part of the game, which just so happens to be passing him by in 2017.