The New York Yankees have a good and deep bullpen heading into the 2022 season. However, they have learned the hard way that there is no such thing as too much relief pitching depth, and injuries (and COVID-19 outbreaks) can change things in a hurry. Exploring the reliever market is never a bad idea.
After a dominant showing in the shortened 2020 season, Richard Rodríguez positioned himself as an attractive trade piece for contending clubs like the Yankees. After all, he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and most good players end up leaving via trade.
That year, Rodríguez posted a career-high 36.6-percent strikeout rate and a tiny 5.4-percent walk rate, with a 2.70 ERA (2.85 FIP) and a 0.86 WHIP in 23.1 innings. Yes, the sample was small, but he already had an elite season with Pittsburgh in 2018, with a 2.47 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 69.1 frames, so it wasn’t just a one-time thing.
Enter 2021. Although he didn’t show the same strikeout prowess to start the season, Rodríguez was very, very good in the first three months, with a 1.78 ERA, a 2.12 FIP, and a 24.5 percent strikeout rate over 30.1 frames. Certainly, his tiny 2.7-percent walk rate helped.
But from late June onward, MLB started to enforce some changes. Umpires would be able to inspect pitchers for the use of sticky stuff on the ball, and suspensions could be issued. Evidently, pitchers had to quit using these foreign substances or risk some punishment.
Everything changed for Rodríguez after that, perhaps without coincidence. In 34 innings, he had a decent 3.97 ERA, but it came with a huge drop in strikeouts and an ugly 5.76 FIP. The 31-year-old struck out just 10.6-percent of the hitters he faced, or 3.97 per nine frames if you want to look at it from another perspective. He also allowed 1.85 homers per nine, and it was a miracle he kept his ERA under four in the mentioned timeframe.
In the middle of all this, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves prior to the deadline. However, he had a negative fWAR with them, because his 3.12 ERA (in 26 innings) paints a much different picture than his 6.17 FIP with the current World Series champions. Rodríguez was so unreliable that Atlanta didn’t use him in the playoffs, electing to add even pitchers who hadn’t appeared in months over Rodríguez.
Predictably, spin rate was behind his struggles. After MLB enforced this peculiar foreign substances mandate, Rodríguez’s rates started to collapse on both of his pitches, his four-seam fastball and his slider.
Rodríguez completely lost his ability to miss bats and, after a whole half of tempting fate (he had a 97.1 strand rate with the Braves!), was ultimately non-tendered a few weeks ago. He is now free to sign with any team.
You can criticize the Yankees all you want, but they do have an amazing pitching coach in Matt Blake and other talented people in the organization, like Sam Briend. They proved, in 2021, that they can work wonders with the resources they have at hand, changing careers for the better: Nestor Cortes Jr., Lucas Luetge, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Stephen Ridings are just a handful of examples.
Other than burning a roster spot, it probably represents no harm at all if they offer Rodríguez a cheap one-year deal as a flier. His upside is considerable, as he showed in 2019 (2.47 ERA, 11.42 K/9 in 69.1 frames, with 1.3 fWAR). The right-hander could be the ultimate low risk, high upside addition to an already good bullpen, which is good because he won’t be asked to fill a high-leverage role right away.
There is a chance Rodríguez takes a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training (whenever that actually happens, of course). It makes sense to have him work in the “Gas Station” for a while, rediscover his strikeout power, find his most suitable release point, and go from there. If there is something to save here, Blake, Briend, and company will give it a shot.