James Paxton, Enny Romero, Danny Duffy, Derek Holland, David Price, Chris Sale, Brad Hand, Martin Perez, Francisco Liriano, Jon Lester, Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Matt Moore, Ross Detwiler, Patrick Corbin, Kris Johnson, Hector Santiago, Tony Cingrani, and Cole Hamels. A distinguished group of twenty, is it not?
The above list constitutes all lefthanded MLB starting pitchers who averaged 91.5 mph or more on their fastballs in 2013. As you can see, it consists largely of two groups: good, established MLB starters and unproven but exciting young guys who only got a few starts in the majors during the past season. Almost none of these guys have neither exciting presents nor exciting futures, and thus, anyone who projects to join this relatively selective club merits a closer look. One such pitcher is Pirates southpaw prospect Joely Rodriguez.
Rodriguez entered 2013 as a virtual nonentity. After all, his 2012 campaign saw him strike out a meager 32 batters in 64 innings as a 20-year-old in short-season ball, his fourth year as a professional. Baseball America didn’t even bother to include him on the Pirates’ organizational depth chart in the 2013 Prospect Handbook, let alone the team’s top 30 prospects.
2013 was something of a breakout campaign for the 21-year-old lefthander, though, as Rodriguez was effective with both Low-A West Virginia (72 2/3 IP, 57/20 K/BB, 4 HR, 2.72 ERA, 3.34 FIP) and High-A Bradenton (67 1/3 IP, 44/19 K/BB, 4 HR, 2.67 ERA, 3.51 FIP). In a system with a lot of big-name arms (the recently-graduated Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Luis Heredia, Tyler Glasnow, etc.), Rodriguez still is often overlooked.
It’s time to get acquainted with him, though, both because of his excellent 2013 season and a collection of raw stuff that shows both polish and potential. It starts with this:
This is his fastball. I want to spotlight a few things here. First, let’s look at the delivery. Rodriguez throws somewhat across his body, striding toward first base in his motion, but it doesn’t seem to hinder him much mechanically, as his arm is loose and his motion is fairly efficient and fluid from start to finish. He uses his lower body well to generate drive and does a nice job keeping his arm in sync with his body, though he has occasional mild recoil in his finish on fastballs, as we can see here. His arm slot is fairly low as well, and the cross-body motion and low slot combine to make him very tough on his fellow lefthanders (.212/.290/.281 against him in 2013, as opposed to .287/.333/.421 for righthanders).
Then there’s the matter of the pitch itself. Rodriguez’s fastball is consistently 90-93 mph, touching 95, and it has nice natural run and sink. Unlike a lot of young hard throwers, he doesn’t try to just blow the ball by hitters, preferring to work down in the strike zone and letting the pitch’s natural movement pile up the ground balls. According to his StatCorner page, he’s consistently been above 50% groundball rates and has gotten more and more worm-burners at every stop, from 50.7% in 2012 to 51.9% with West Virginia in the first half of 2013 to 56.7% with Bradenton in the second half of this past season. Between 2012 and 2013, Rodriguez allowed just ten homers in 204 innings, as well. The ability to limit damage on contact is a big part of why he’s a very relevant part of the prospect landscape in spite of a career 5.5 K/9. As with most moving fastballs, his tends to have more life to the arm side, as we can see here:
But what of Rodriguez’s mediocre ability to miss bats? He did post a career-high 18.5% K-rate in West Virginia, but it fell back to 16.2% in Bradenton. Players who can’t post league-average strikeout rates in the Florida State League (avg. K-rate of 18.6%) don’t generally go on to average or better strikeout rates in the big leagues, at least not without a move to the bullpen. Can Rodriguez defy the odds?
It’s certainly too early to answer that question with a definitive yes, but there are several reasons not to write Rodriguez off as a player who will be exclusively a pitch-to-contact type. The first is that the Pirates tended to heavily emphasize changeup development over breaking pitch development with their low-minors pitchers, making Rodriguez mostly present a fastball-change look to opponents that obviously isn’t conducive to lots of strikeouts, unless the fastball and change are Fernando Rodney’s.
One can debate the wisdom of the organization’s emphasis on changeup work, but while it’s arguably suppressed Rodriguez’s ability to pile up strikeouts, it has assisted him in–as one would hope–developing a solid changeup. Here’s what it looks like:
A few things stand out about this pitch. First, it has very similar movement to the above fastball in the same location, with good sink and fade. As with the fastball, Rodriguez likes to work the changeup down in the zone, which means he can get swinging strikes when batters are out in front, but also can pick up grounders with the offering even if they time it. The pitch has solid speed separation from the fastball, coming in at 80-85 mph. Note how much softer his finish on this pitch is, too, as he doesn’t have the troublesome recoil he sometimes displays on the fastball. While righthanders did hit fairly well off of Rodriguez this year, his changeup is already an average offering and has a reasonable chance of developing into an out pitch against northpaws.
Rodriguez’s 81-84 mph slider is less consistent. It shows promise at times, but right now its one good function is as a chase pitch moving away from lefthanders, like so:
This particular offering is borderline plus: it has solid velocity and big, sweeping late break. Because of Rodriguez’s release point, way over toward first base, this pitch moves from the edge of the lefthanded batter’s box to the edge of the righthanded batter’s box, all while tumbling toward the earth. Michael Johnson, who isn’t a bad hitter nor an undisciplined one, ends up taking a frightfully poor cut at this pitch. Again, Rodriguez’s effectiveness here derives as much from the tough angle and deception he presents to lefthanders as much as the raw quality of his pitches themselves, but when that deception combines with a pitch that actually has plus life, he eats southpaws alive.
But one cannot judge the quality of a slider by what it looks like when it’s a foot outside of the zone to the glove side–most sliders are going to look pretty good in that spot, because they’re thrown to the side of the plate that they naturally break to (the same goes for fastballs and changeups to the arm side, though not to as great an extent). And while Rodriguez generates solid movement on his breaking ball when it’s deployed to his glove side, he’s also liable to do this:
On the 2-8 scouting scale, this is what a 2 slider looks like. Your eyes might need some training to even tell this is a slider, because the action on the pitch is barely perceptible (it’s a little more evident at full speed in the video).
This pitch, by itself, actually points toward two problems the slider has. The first is that it doesn’t retain its movement when thrown to the arm side, and the second is that Rodriguez doesn’t command it well. He rarely brought the pitch in the zone to either lefthanders or righthanders in my viewing, preferring to bury it in the dirt. It’s not a good enough pitch to induce chases from higher-level hitters on a regular basis with little or no threat of being thrown for a strike, which explains some of the erosion in his strikeout rate upon his promotion from West Virginia to Bradenton.
The good news is that, again, the Pirates prioritize changeup development over breaking ball development, so it’s expected that Rodriguez’s slider would be the last pitch to round into consistent form. It has the raw attributes to function as an average pitch overall, and a plus pitch to lefthanders, if he can have consistent command of the offering, something his smooth delivery should allow him to approach with more reps.
In sum, Rodriguez projects as a pitcher with a plus moving fastball, a solid-average changeup, and an average slider, all with above-average control and groundball ability. It’s not necessarily the sexiest package of attributes in the world, but that’s part of what makes him an intriguing follow for dynasty league owners–this is a pitcher who probably will never get much hype before reaching the big leagues, yet could emerge as a very competent mid-rotation asset by virtue of limiting extraneous baserunners and extra-base hits. Further, since he’s passed the A-ball test, he should open 2014 in Double-A Altoona, and he has a very real chance of cracking the Pirates’ rotation with meaningful time left in the 2015 season, depending on how some of the other pitching prospects in the system shake out in the interim. He’s a deep sleeper who will likely enter 2014 still buried on the depth chart, but Rodriguez is one of the most underrated lefthanded pitchers in the minors and should continue to gain steam over the next two years.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.