First, Rodney and the zone. He has a career walk rate of 4.71 batters per nine. His best walk rate before this year was 3.48 per nine, back in 2005, and that was still worse than league average. Right now, Rodney is walking 1.31 per nine, or only three so far on the season. He’s pumping 54.2% of his pitches in the zone this year, which is above average (49.1%) but not as far above his carer average (50.4%). He’s getting strike one at a better-than average rate (62%), but he got strike one 62.7% of the time last year and he walked almost eight per nine.
What gives? How is Rodney avoiding the walk about 75% better than he has over his career, despite not really showing an ability to find the zone that much better than usual?
One story is that Rodney was moved on the rubber. R.J. Anderson found the relevant pictures to prove that the Rays moved Rodney on the rubber and changed his release angle:
Still. Wouldn’t we see some evidence of his new release in the zone stats? FanGraphs has heat maps for Rodney, do these look any different? Results inconclusive.
But if you do start poking around on Rodney’s zone results, an interesting trend emerges. Baseball Analytics looked at his called strikes outside the zone and found that after hovering around 7.4% strikes on those pitches, Rodney is currently enjoying called strikes on 17.2% of his pitches outside the zone. Could still just be a lucky month, move on the rubber or no.
There’s one last wrinkle to this onion, to mix metaphors. Jays fans might remember how good their former backup catcher was at framing pitches. In fact, Mike Fast ran the numbers and found that Jose Molina is the best catcher in baseball when it comes to framing pitches. Bradley Woodrum of FanGraphs even went through a game where Fernando Rodney closed out the Sawx and Molina got him a few extra — but crucial — strike calls that may have turned the game. So let’s call Rodney’s secret sauce one part rubber move, one part new catcher, and one part luck. That’s still two-thirds of a good scenario, and it might mean he can keep the job all year.
And there’s your first inkling of roto-relevancy here. Rodney might get what he needs from his catcher, and he’s always had velocity and swinging-strike stuff. He might be able to keep his job all year. How else can we use called strikes outside the zone and catcher framing to benefit our fantasy teams?
It’s clear from team-wide statistics that you can’t just pick all Rays and Rays pitching to Jose Molina to get the benefit of his skills. The Rays’ team walk rate is right around average this year (3.29 BB/9) and a hair worse than last year (3.13 BB/9). The Blue Jays did go from league average in 2011 (3.31 BB/9) to the worst in the American League over the last two years (3.90 BB/9), but we can’t blame that all on Molina, can we.
And, aside from monthly dispatches from Baseball Analytics, no site carries called strikes on pitches inside or outside the zone right now. You can find a post from them that says that Yu Darvish is getting squeezed in the zone, and then you can find out that Mike Fast had Napoli bad at framing, but that’s a bit of a shot in the dark, and dependent on those posts. So it’s tough to find out how lucky or unlucky your specific pitcher with a brand-new walk rate is actually getting.
But, with the rise of the daily game like FanGraphs: The Game or Pick Six, the daily matchup play is becoming increasingly important. Just look at this post about Jonathan Lucroy and the possible effect he might be having on called strikes this year for more evidence, and then check out the game logs of the Brewers-Giants game on Wednesday (retweeted by fellow Getting Blanked contributor Wendy Thurm) for the effect of that cause.
If you’re on the fence about a starting pitcher for one of these daily games, checking his starting catcher against the list of good framers might be a way to split those hairs and pick the winning matchup. You could even combine that pitcher/catcher tandem with a look at the umpire working that game and his tendencies (most up to date at BaseballHeatMaps.com) to really solidify that matchup.
But umpires and their tendencies might just be a post for another day. For now, enjoy Fernando Rodney, who updated his bow-and-arrow celebration move to include teammate (and leadoff hitter) Carlos Pena, courtesy R.J. Anderson’s retweet of Mason Stillwell on twitter: