Fernando Rodney‘s 2012 season is redefining relief domination. The veteran flamethrower is turning into the real life version of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, transforming from a wild pitcher who never harnessed his stuff into one of the surest ninth innings in baseball. Rodney will carry a 38 FIP- and an incredible 11 ERA- into his next appearance. It’s only 22.2 innings, but Rodney would need to walk 25 batters and allow 15 runs in his next 9.1 innings to equal his totals from 32 innings last season.
Ricky Vaughn didn’t find the strike zone until manager Lou Brown discovered that his fireballer needed glasses. It’s unclear if Joe Maddon, pitching coach Jim Hickey or some other Rays coach is the Lou Brown in Rodney’s story, but Rodney definitely has his own version of Vaughn’s glasses this season. Observe, Rodney’s release point in 2012, compared to 2011:
Although most release point changes come from changes in arm angle, that isn’t the case here. Instead — as was first pointed out by former FanGraphs author R.J. Anderson over at Baseball Prospectus — Rodney has shifted on the rubber:
The real change for Rodney has been tremendous control — although an 8.74 K/9 is solid, it’s only half a point above his career average. It’s the three walks in 22.2 innings that’s completely new, as he’s never even ran a BB/9 less than three in his career. It’s tough to draw a direct line between his mound shift and his control, but the results are stark. Specifically, he almost never misses off the inside corner any more with his fastball. Take a look at the difference between 2012 and 2011 (all graphics from catcher’s viewpoint):
The highlighted sections denote pitches inside to lefties and righties. There are a good number of pitches inside these zones, particularly to righties. Fast forward to 2012:
Rodney has thrown about half as many pitches and two-thirds as many innings as he did last year with the Angels — but he has managed to almost completely avoid these zones inside, off the plate where he returned to so frequently last season. Even the inner thirds, over the plate, are significantly more empty this season. He seems to be making a distinct effort to throw to the outer half of the plate — and unlike in previous seasons — he’s actually been able to consistently hit his spots.
Chances are that Rodney’s shift on the mound is but a small piece of a larger reworking of the way he pitches. But much like Rick Vaughn’s spectacular spectacles, it is by far the most noticeable. This is not just the same Fernando Rodney who could never hit his spots simply showing up and magically popping the zone again and again. The Rays have changed something fundamental about Rodney’s approach, and now at age 35, he’s showing the stuff that makes him among the best relief pitchers in the league.