Dereck Rodriguez: A Symbol of Change for Converted Pitchers

Dereck Rodriguez posted a 2.85 ERA at Elizabethtown this year. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins)

Dereck Rodriguez posted a 2.85 ERA at Elizabethtown this year. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins)

Dereck Rodriguez gave fist bumps all around to his Elizabethton Twins teammates before making the start in the final game of the regular season last month. It was a big deal. A possible playoff spot was on the line, and Elizabethton had entrusted the game to a guy who didn’t even pitch two years ago.

Rodriguez is a converted outfielder, although you’d never know it watching him now. He pitched great in the pivotal game, earning the win that ended up being a meaningless game thanks to eventual league champion Greeneville’s win over Danville that night. Overall, the season was a success for Rodriguez. The right-hander had blossomed into a full-fledged starter, making him an evolutionary symbol in a growing trend in baseball: the converted position player.

“You spend more on players to get them into your organization now,” said Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff. “They’re commodities, and you want to wring every ounce of potential you can before you let them go.”

Radcliff added that teams are also signing fewer players than they did in the 1970s and ’80s.

“So you think of the backup plan more than you used to,” he said. “It’s not just some washed out Triple-A guy. Your best chance to be successful after lots of people evaluate a player is to do it when he’s in his early 20s, not when he’s getting ready to retire.”

Almost always, however, these guys go on to be power relievers in the majors. The Colorado Rockies, for instance, signed and developed current Chicago Cubs middle reliever Pedro Strop as a shortstop. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Cubs set-up man Jason Motte as a catcher before putting him in the bullpen. Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Chris Hatcher was a catcher in the Marlins system before the Fish converted him in 2009.

The Dodgers have worked plenty of their own magic. In 2007, L.A. signed a power-hitting third baseman from the Dominican Republic named Pedro Baez. He flashed potential with the bat for a few years, getting all the way to Double-A in 2013 before the Dodgers realized he may have more value to them as a pitcher. They were right. Baez is now one of manager Don Mattingly’s most reliable middle relievers.

But Baez isn’t even the biggest conversion success in his own bullpen. That’s closer Kenley Jansen, whom L.A. signed as a catcher in 2005. He couldn’t hit past A-ball, but his size and arm were too good to pass up. The Dodgers gave him a second lease on his baseball life in 2009, trying him on the mound in the Cal League. Since then, the big right-hander has saved more than 135 big-league games.

The conversion of 23-year-old Rodriguez, however, represents a bolder play.

“He has the pitches and the mix and the command potential to be a starting pitcher,” said Radcliff. “That’s the exciting part of where we are. You never know how it’ll go as he moves up the ladder. It’s hard to get a 40-man roster spot. But he already has a lot of the traits.”

Rodriguez earned the Appalachian League pitcher of the year award this summer even though he was part of a rotation that included the league’s ERA champ, Andro Cutura. Even Rodriguez was a little surprised to hear he won.

“I thought I pitched pretty well, but I also knew a lot of other guys were having really good seasons, including a few of my teammates,” said Rodriguez, who finished his Appy League campaign with a 6-3 record, 2.85 ERA, 66 strikeouts and just 11 walks. “It was anyone’s award, to be honest.”

Radcliff said the Twins liked Rodriguez as a pitcher and outfielder when scouts started tracking him at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla. Minnesota ended up taking Rodriguez as an outfielder in the sixth round of the 2011 draft because the team knew Rodriguez wanted to make it as a position player. That was his dream ever since he started hanging out with his father, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, in big-league ballparks.

“Out of the 162 games he played every year, I was with him at 140 of them,” Rodriguez said. “Ever since I was small I was messing around in locker rooms and shagging balls during BP.”

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Rodriguez said that, other than his father, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was the player he emulated most.

“To be honest, until this year, I never really thought about what it would be like to pitch in the big leagues,” he said. “Growing up, all my attention was on the position players making diving catches and hitting home runs.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t come so easy to him once he turned pro. He never hit like his father, batting just .216 with six homers and 36 RBI in 342 rookie-league at-bats. Rodriguez did, however, have his dad’s knack for making pinpoint throws.

“He was a very accurate thrower when he was an outfielder,” recalled Elizabethton pitching coach Luis Ramirez, who has coached at the rookie level in the Twins system for the last three seasons. “When he got on the mound and started pitching, he had a feel for the strike zone. It wasn’t like he was throwing the ball all over the place. He was always around the zone.”

Rodriguez was the one who prompted his switch to pitching in 2013. His strong arm and weak hitting had stirred rumors in the organization that a switch would be made. So, he called Twins minor league field coordinator Joe Lepel to see what was going on.

“He said they were planning on giving me an extra year to hit, but I said if you want to change me you may as well change me now,” said Rodriguez. “As long as I have a uniform on, I’m fine.”

So the Twins went ahead with it.

“We knew he didn’t have a lot of pitching experience,” said Radcliff. “He was basically a closer on his high school team, and he pitched some in summer ball. But we also knew he had had arm strength and the chance to have several good pitches. He had a decent frame and good arm action.”

When he reported to Fort Myers for spring training in 2014, Rodriguez said, he threw fastballs and change-ups almost exclusively.

“I had a little slider and a cutter that moved a little,” he remembered. “I also had a curveball that I threw in high school, but you could read it from a mile away. I had to learn that pitch all over again.”

There was no science to his approach.

“Professional hitters, even in rookie ball, have already seen a lot of good pitchers,” he said. “I threw my fastball down the middle and just thought, ‘Let’s see where it goes.’” I knew when to throw my breaking ball. I was a hitter my whole life, so I knew when a hitter was thinking a fastball was coming.”

The Twins sent Rodriguez back to Elizabethton last summer as a reliever, and he held opposing hitters to a .211 batting average in 25.2 innings of work. Radcliff said that from that point on, everyone in the Twins organization knew they really had something. And this year, said Radcliff, he proved them right.

“He has a feel, which is something you don’t normally see in a pitcher at that level,” said Radcliff. “He handles the running game. He has presence on the mound. He’s not just throwing the ball. He can see what hitters can and can’t do. He’s already made the jump in terms of his pitchability.”

Usually, that doesn’t happen for a while, if at all. For every Jansen and Motte and Strop who make the jump and reach the show, hundreds can’t cut it past a season. Ramirez has worked with several.

“Last year we had a guy who was an outfielder for us in the Dominican Summer League,” recalled Ramirez. “We made him a pitcher two years ago. The first year, he was in the Dominican Summer League, last year he pitched for us here. Now he’s out of baseball.”

Ramirez said that’s a common story because pitching isn’t about just having a good arm.

“Everything has to be together with rhythm and all that,” he explained. “When you’re on the mound, you have to know how to use your lower half well so the rest of your body works together with your arm. It’s not easy.”

Rodriguez remembered having to completely change the way he threw the ball.

“I was used to throwing from the outfield, so I was flying open a lot. I had to close up a little bit and release the ball more out in front than over my head,” he explained. “All that work really paid off.”

Ramirez said he remembers how surprised he felt when he first saw Rodriguez throw bullpens on the back fields at Fort Myers, not long after the righty committed to pitching. His commitment was just physical, however, not mental.

“I’m sure he was disappointed he didn’t move along as a position player,” said Radcliff. “Then you have to make the transition and go back to the leagues you’ve already been playing in. All that goes into the mental part of the transition and the conversion.”

He wasn’t looking forward to extended spring training again, but Rodriguez knew he needed the extra training time. Because the plan wasn’t to have him pitch an inning or two at time; it was to have him start.

“I was mentally prepared knowing I wouldn’t play every day and be in the mix of things,” said Rodriguez. “But still, I spent that first year finding my new role on the team and figuring out how to stay focused on those days between starts.”

Today, Rodriguez looks as if he’s been a starter all his life. He admits he has a lot more confidence than he did in 2014, and he expects he’ll have even more heading into camp next spring. Meanwhile, his dad will give him a wide berth to blaze his own trail to the big leagues.

“Most of the time we don’t even talk about baseball, to be honest,” said Rodriguez of his father. “After days I start he’ll ask how it went but that’s it. We’d rather talk about golf and other stuff.”

Pudge saw his kid pitch a few times this year, first at spring training and then a June 30 start at Elizabethton. Dereck rose to the occasion, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning and eventually one-hitting the Bristol Pirates for the win. Both father and son told the press afterward they enjoyed themselves that night, but they also downplayed the performance.

The elder Rodriguez understands all the long bus rides and ups and downs to come before the call comes from the big-league club. The younger Rodriguez understands that what he’s trying to do is ambitious.

“This offseason I’m just going to train a lot and develop my pitches to make them all a little bit sharper,” said Rodriguez. “I’m trying to get my arm strong so I can make a full-season club right out of spring training.”

Next year will be a big year for him. It’ll be a big year for everyone. Because if Rodriguez succeeds at Cedar Rapids, he could start to change the way every organization looks at converted pitchers.


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Billy Pilgrim
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Billy Pilgrim

“Minnesota promptly put Rodriguez on a plane to low-A Cedar Rapids”

To sit in an empty ballpark and meditate on his less-than-stellar performance in that league back in June?

I lost count of the chronological errors through the first three paragraphs, but good luck in your campaign to bring back the Julian calendar.

http://www.baseballamerica.com/statistics/players/cards/95411/log