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Wandy Rodriguez: Underrated Quality Pitcher

Last week, the Houston Astros put Wandy Rodriguez on waivers, giving teams until Tuesday afternoon to make a claim on him. At the time, Jon Heyman noted that only “some fool” would put in a claim, given the amount of money he’s still owed on his contract. This isn’t to pick on Heyman, since he’s hardly been the only writer talking about Rodriguez’s burdensome contract and how Houston should be happy to be rid of their obligation to him going forward.

Through it all, I’ve sat here and scratched my head trying to figure out if we’re all talking about the same Wandy Rodriguez here, because the one that I’m aware of is a pretty good pitcher.

Since the start of the 2008 season (giving us Wandy’s past three years, plus this one), his ERA- is 84, meaning he’s posted a mark 16 percent better than league average. The ranking puts him just ahead of Roy Oswalt, Shaun Marcum, Hiroki Kuroda, Ricky Romero, and Mark Buehrle in a nearly four year sample. Clearly, it can’t be the results that people have had a problem with.

So, let’s look at the peripherals, even though I doubt Heyman was thinking about Rodriguez’s FIP and xFIP when talking about how no one should want Rodriguez’s contract. Still, it’s useful to see if Rodriguez is a guy who has consistently beat his secondary numbers or not, as teams do value pitchers differently based on how they get outs.

By FIP-, Rodriguez rates at a 91, posting an FIP nine percent better than the league average over the last 3+ years. He does slightly better by xFIP-, where his 88 means that he’s been 12 percent better than the league average. Neither of these marks are quite as good as his ERA-, but they’re still good enough to put him in the top quartile of pitchers in Major League Baseball.

So, we have a guy with good peripherals who has posted an ERA even better than those numbers would suggest, and been consistently good over the last four years. Sure, his strikeout rate is down slightly this year, but his overall numbers are still well above average, and the falling strikeout rate hasn’t been reflected in giving up runs (his 3.31 ERA ranks 15th in the National League this year), which is usually the way that mainstream writers evaluate pitchers. So, we’re left with a pitcher who should be considered a quality performer no matter how you look at his results, and yet he’s being treated like he has Alfonso Soriano‘s contract hanging around his neck.

In reality, though, even the money he’s due beyond this year isn’t all that much. He’s due $10 million in salary next year, $13 million in salary the year after, and then there’s an option for $13 million in 2014 which comes with a $2.5 million buyout. If Wandy is traded, that club option becomes a player option, and the general assumption has been that he would exercise that and be under contract for the next three seasons.

If the option isn’t exercised, then Rodriguez is owed $25 million over the next two seasons. If it is, then he’s owed $36 million over the next three. It’s not pocket change, but when did that kind of contract become a millstone for a quality starting pitcher? Do we really think Rodriguez would get substantially less if he were a free agent this winter?

Looking back at previous offseasons, we can see that Rodriguez’s deal is right in line with what other mid-rotation starters have been getting. Ted Lilly, an inferior pitcher in just about every way, signed a three year, $33 million contract with the Dodgers last year. The year before, Randy Wolf (another soft-tossing lefty with a worse track record than Rodriguez) got $30 million over three years from the Brewers. Even a guy like Jorge de la Rosa, whose results have never really matched his stuff, got 3/30 last winter from the Rockies.

Rodriguez is better than all of these guys, and his remaining contract is right in line with what the market has been paying non-elite left-handed starting pitchers over the last few years. And yet, for whatever reason, 3/36 for Rodriguez is being treated like a plague. The Colorado Rockies were wise to not give in to the anti-Rodriguez hype machine, however, and showed that they understand that Rodriguez is likely worth his contract and then some by putting in a claim on him. Reports have made it sound unlikely that the Astros will just give him away, however, since they’re apparently asking for a significant return for Rodriguez.

So, at least two Major League teams value Rodriguez above and beyond what his contract pays him. His numbers support their case and show that he’s been one of the better pitchers in the National League for quite some time. In reality, there’s just no evidence to support the idea that Rodriguez’s contract is some huge burden that teams should be running from. The real story here is that a good pitcher with a fair contract got claimed on waivers. I guess that’s not quite as interesting though.