Very quietly, Houston Astros lefty Wandy Rodriguez ranked among the better starters in the National League over the past few seasons. The man once known as Eny Cabreja made a name for himself from 2007 to 2009, striking out 8.25 batters per nine innings, walking 2.89 per nine, and posting a 3.81 xFIP that ranked in the top 20 among NL starters.
It hasn’t been a banner year for Rodriguez, though. Through his first 13 starts, the 31-year-old has been lit up for a 5.60 ERA. That’s the highest mark among qualified NL starters. Has Wandy lost his magic?
While Rodriguez isn’t pitching at the same level as he did over the ’07 to ’09 period, his ERA does overstate the extent of his struggles — his FIP is 4.41 and his xFIP is 4.49. Rodriguez has been plagued by a .353 BABIP, second-highest among qualified Senior Circuit starters and well above his .314 career figure. Further, his rate of stranding runners on base has dipped to 62.5 percent; the MLB average is in the 70-72 percent range, and Rodriguez’s career left on base rate is 69.4 percent.
So, Wandy hasn’t really been among the worst starters in the league. But he’s still falling well short of his pre-season forecasts. ZiPS projected 8.13 K/9, 2.81 BB/9 and a 3.78 FIP, while CHONE envisioned 8.16 K/9, 2.95 BB/9 and a 3.80 FIP. So far, Rodriguez has punched out 6.22 hitters per nine frames and issued 3.73 BB/9.
Unsurprisingly, with those strikeout and walk totals, Rodriguez is missing fewer bats, putting fewer pitches in the zone, and is getting behind in the count more than usual. From 2007 to 2009, he garnered swinging strikes 8.7 percent of the time, slightly above the 8.6 percent MLB average over that period. He located 52.3 percent of his pitches within the strike zone, with the MLB average ranging from 49.3 to 51.1 percent. Rodriguez threw a first pitch strike 60 percent, besting the 58 percent big league average.
In 2010, however, his swinging strike rate is 7.6 percent (8.2 MLB average), his zone percentage is 45.5 (47.3 MLB average) and his rate of first pitch strikes is 58.2 (58.3 MLB average).
According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Rodriguez is throwing more two-seam fastballs at the expense of four-seamers this season. Maybe it’s a classification quirk, but that would help explain his career-high 47.5 ground ball rate. Rodriguez is throwing the two-seamer for strikes (65 percent, compared to the 61.9 percent MLB average), but the pitch gets few whiffs — 4.3 percent, as opposed to the 8.4 percent MLB average.
When Wandy does throw a four-seamer, the pitch is rarely on the mark. The four-seamer has been thrown for strikes just 52.7 percent (64.1 MLB average), with a 3.2 percent whiff rate (6 percent MLB average). Batters are swinging at the pitch only 29.3 percent of the time (44.6 big league average). By contrast, Rodriguez threw the pitch for a strike about 66 percent of the time in 2008 and 2009, with an average whiff rate and a swing percentage in the low-forties.
His signature mid-70’s curveball hasn’t been as sharp, either. Rodriguez has induced a strike with the curve 60.3 percent in 2010, which is still above the 58 percent MLB average, but falls short of his 63.2 percent mark in 2009 and 62.4 percent figure in 2008. The whiff rate on his curve is 12.4 percent, down from 14 percent in 2009 and 14.2 percent in 2008 (10.5 percent MLB average).
After losing his arbitration hearing over the winter, Rodriguez is earning $5 million this season. He’s arbitration-eligible again next year, so he’s under team control through 2011. Given his track record of quality pitching over the past few seasons, Houston’s place in the standings and the team’s moribund (at least until recently) player development system, Rodriguez could find himself on the trading block. Whether the Astros choose to keep him or swap him, the club could surely use the ’07 to ’09 version of Wandy Rodriguez, as opposed to the merely adequate pitcher on display so far this season.