Brewers manager Ron Roenicke blindsided the fantasy baseball world when he announced on Opening Day that Francisco Rodriguez, not Jim Henderson, would be the team's closer. Six weeks into the season, it's clear Roenicke made the right choice. In 20 appearances this year, Rodriguez has a scant 0.45 ERA, 1.89 FIP, 26 strikeouts against four walks, and has converted 15 of his 16 save opportunities. Henderson, meanwhile, was placed on the DL with shoulder soreness at the beginning of May. The Brewers are enjoying a phenomenal season, and Rodriguez has been a large part of that success, as he, along with Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith, have spelled doom for opponents once the seventh inning hits.
If you simply look at the results, you would perhaps think this has been a resurrection of the same old K-Rod, the guy who used a blazing fastball and wicked slider to become one of the best closers in the game with the Angels in the middle of last decade. However, that Rodriguez is gone, never to come back. This version of Rodriguez, who's been arguably the best closer in 2014, dominates with a pitch that the old one used rarely: the changeup.
MLB.com has helpfully compiled some of Rodriguez' best moments from April, which you can watch here:
There's a distinct pattern in every single strikeout in that video, which is that strike three came on a changeup. Indeed, Rodriguez has thrown the change 33.7 percent of the time last year, and it has been incredibly effective. It has a 29-percent swinging-strike rate, and hitters have offered at it 54 percent of the time that it has missed the strike zone. Despite the fact that he has thrown it in the zone less than one-third of the time, hitters have swung at it nearly two-thirds of the time. He'll still go to the breaking ball every now and again, but Rodriguez has primarily become a fastball-changeup pitcher who shuts the door with pinpoint command of both those pitches. It's a stunning transformation for a guy who once had the most electric power repertoires out of the bullpen, but it's one that has helped him again become one of the best closers in the game.
Pitchers of the week
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs -- Last week: 15 IP, 14 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.53 WHIP
Samardzija is a perfect example as to why pitcher wins is a horribly overrated stat. He was as dominant as ever last week, allowing one unearned run and three hits in nine innings against the White Sox, then shutting out the Braves and surrendering just two hits in six innings. Did he earn a win in either of those performances? Of course not. The Cubs offense gave him a grand total of one run in those two games. Despite a 1.45 ERA, 2.91 FIP and 1.05 WHIP, Samardzija is 0-3 on the year.
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers -- 8 2/3 IP, 1 W, 12 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.35 WHIP
Darvish took a perfect game into the seventh inning and was one out away from a no-hitter in his lone start last week, a win over the Red Sox. He lost the perfect game on an error by right fielder Alex Rios, though he did end up walking a pair of batters before Shane Victorino broke up the no-no with a single in the ninth. The list of pitchers who have thrown perfect games in their career proves it's not just about skill (looking at you, Dallas Braden), but if you had to bet on an active pitcher to get one during his career, Darvish would probably be your man.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers -- 14 IP, 2 W, 15 K, 1.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP
With apologies to Jered Weaver and Robbie Erlin, both of whom shined in two outings, Scherzer gets the final spot this week. He shut down the Astros, allowing three hits and a walk in eight shutout innings while striking out nine. The Twins got to him a bit, scoring three runs on five hits and four walks, but he still fanned six and picked up the win. Weaver and Erlin both allowed fewer runs and baserunners, but neither matched his combination of two wins and 15 strikeouts, giving Scherzer the superior fantasy week.
Pitchers of the weak
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals -- 4 1/3 IP, 4 K, 14.54 ERA, 2.77 WHIP
Gonzalez got knocked around by the A's on Sunday, allowing seven runs on nine hits --including two homers -- and three walks. The outing increased his ERA by more than a full run, up to 3.97 from 2.91. Chalk it up to a rough day against one of the best teams in the league. Gonzalez' FIP is still a tidy 3.32 and he's fanning more than a batter per inning.
Martin Perez, Texas Rangers -- 8 2/3 IP, 9 K, 11.42 ERA, 2.65 WHIP
Perez struggled in losses to the Rockies and Red Sox, allowing a combined 11 runs on 16 hits and seven walks. Over the weekend, we learned the potential root of those struggles when the team announced he would have an MRI on his left elbow. He's going to miss at least one start, but this could be much more serious than that. It's worth noting that his average fastball velocity in his last outing was the third lowest it has been in eight starts this year.
Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs -- 4 IP, 3 K, 18.00 ERA, 3.25 WHIP
Wood got shelled in a loss to the White Sox last Wednesday, surrendering eight runs on eight hits and five walks in four innings. Wood started the game with a 3.35 ERA on the season. By time the White Sox were done with him, his ERA had skyrocketed to 4.75. Wood has proven to be a reliable middle or backend rotation guy, as well as a solid fantasy option in deeper leagues, but his soft-tossing ways make him prone to days like this when he isn't spotting his fastball well.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds
I had already pegged Bailey as my guy to buy given that his peripherals in no way matched up with his lackluster superficial stats. After his strong outing against the Rockies over the weekend, however, the buy-low window may have slammed shut. He allowed one run on four hits and two walks in 7 1/3 innings while striking out six in the Reds' victory. Bailey's velocity has been fine all year, with his average fastball sitting right at 94 mph. It seems that every ball that gets put in play against him finds a hole, evidenced by a .343 BABIP. His current 19.2-percent line-drive rate would be a career low, so even though he's getting way more ground balls than usual, we can safely expect that BABIP to come down over the full course of the season. As it does, the ERA and WHIP will naturally follow. With a strikeout rate north of 20 percent and walk rate below 8 percent, Bailey looks set to put his ugly April behind him.
Sell: Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
It's important to be careful here, given that this is not an outright sell-at-all-costs recommendation. Cole is a fine pitcher, and those of you in keeper or dynasty leagues should disregard this unless you can fetch a huge return for the Pittsburgh righty. However, there's reason to believe Cole's current performance -- an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00, WHIP in the 1.30 range and less than a strikeout per inning -- will hold the rest of the year. His swinging-strike rate is 9.3 percent, right in line with his rookie season. Last year, a 9.3-percent swinging-strike rate would have ranked 42nd in the majors. Cole features one of the best fastballs in the league, but major leaguers can catch up to anything with enough repetition, and an astounding two-thirds of Cole's pitches have been fastballs this year. Without greater production from his off-speed pitches, Cole will likely finish the season as a mid-tier fantasy starter. Given his potential, you may be able to sell him higher than that.
Hold: Alex Wood, Atlanta Braves
The Braves shot to the top of the AL East on the strength of a rotation that, at one point, was imperiled because of injuries to Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen. It was curious, then, that the team decided to move one of the key pieces of that rotation to the bullpen in favor of Gavin Floyd. Even though Wood is now having his talents suppressed as a reliever, fantasy owners would be wise to hold onto him. This could very well be a temporary move, and obviously he'd be right back in the rotation should one of the current five get injured. In addition, neither Floyd nor Aaron Harang is exactly a bulletproof option in the rotation. Should one or both struggle, the Braves would likely turn back to Wood. He may be in the bullpen for now, but there's a strong chance we haven't seen the last of Wood as a starter in 2014.
Rookie pitcher spotlight
Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays
When is an 11-strikeout performance not everything you hoped it would be? Odorizzi answered that question for us on Friday, when he fanned 11 Indians in five innings. To be sure, it was an impressive outing, and the numbers, on their face, look dominant. Watch the video of those 11 strikeouts, however, and a slightly different picture emerges.
Let's go through each one.
Strikeout No. 1: First inning, Michael Bourn, no outs, none on -- Odorizzi throws a 1-2 fastball to Bourn here. He misses his spot east-west a little bit, but the important thing is that it's high out of the zone. He gets Bourn to chase for his first strikeout of the night. This is an effective and, more importantly, well-located pitch. Frequently, that will not be the case.
No. 2: First inning, Carlos Santana, one out, two on -- Nothing more than a 3-2 fastball that Santana swings through. Odorizzi gets credit for not walking Santana, but this has as much to do with the hitter's proclivity to swing and miss as it does with the pitcher.
No. 3: First inning, David Murphy, two out, two on -- This is a wonderful pitch, perhaps one of Odorizzi's best of the night. He gets ahead of Murphy 0-2, then breaks out a filthy split-changeup that he spots perfectly off the outside corner and down out of the zone. Odorizzi has been working on the split-change this year, and it's the offering that can help him jump a level this season.
No. 4: Second inning, Lonnie Chisenhall, one out, one on -- Odorizzi is ahead of Chisenhall 1-2, so he can get away with missing his spot more than if he were behind in the count. Still, he misses his spot with this two-seam fastball comically, but Chisenhall just takes it for strike three. Seriously, Odorizzi missed his location by nearly the entire width of the plate.
No. 5: Second inning, Mike Aviles, two out, one on -- A beautiful slider down and away in a 2-2 count to Aviles. Very nice pitch, Jake.
No. 6: Third inning, Nick Swisher, one out, one on -- Odorizzi's two third-inning strikeouts are impressive because they came with a Bourn on third and less than two outs, so nearly any ball put in play would have meant a run. Having said that, this 3-2 fastball to Swisher was supposed to be outside, and instead ends up a bit above the belt on the inner-third. You can sometimes get away with a pitch like that to Swisher because of his uppercut swing, and that's what happens here. But we can't let Odorizzi off the hook for wildly missing his spot again.
No. 7: Third inning, Michael Brantley, one out, one on -- Odorizzi rarely breaks out the curveball, but that's exactly what he goes with in an 0-2 count against Bradley. This is a solid pitch, buried in the dirt exactly where it should be.
No. 8: Fourth inning, David Murphy, no outs, none on -- Odorizzi spots this fastball exactly where he wants it on the outer-third, and Murphy takes it for strike three. The location is excellent, but a better hitter may have been able to get wood on it.
No. 9: Fourth inning, Mike Aviles, two out, two on -- A 3-2 fastball that Aviles can't catch up to. The ball drifts back to the middle of the plate, but Odorizzi comes away unscathed. Certainly not his best pitch of the game.
No. 10: Fifth inning, Michael Brantley, one out, one on -- Odorizzi saved his best for last, getting two swinging strikeouts with the split-change. The first is in a 1-2 count to Brantley, located beautifully, just like it was in the first against Murphy. He would soon abuse Murphy for the third time of the night.
No. 11: Fifth inning, David Murphy, two out, two on -- Murphy struck out all three times he faced Odorizzi, and this was a carbon copy of his first-inning whiff. He fell behind 0-2, then flailed helplessly at the split-change that was off the plate away and beneath the zone.
You can see why this was a mixed-bag performance, despite the gaudy strikeout totals. While Odorizzi showed some top-notch stuff, particularly with the split-change, he also routinely missed his spot with a not-overpowering fastball, but the Indians were unable to make him pay. Odorizzi could very well develop into a reliable No. 3ish starter, but he remains all too hittable, allowing a 23.7-percent line-drive rate, and wild, with a 10.5-percent walk rate.
By the numbers
14.7 -- Strikeout rate for the Twins pitching staff. In an era of ever-increasing strikeouts, it's little surprise that the Twins have the third-highest ERA and have allowed the fifth-most runs this year.
9 -- Home runs allowed by David Price in 53 2/3 innings. If you're wondering what's driving his high ERA this year, wonder no longer. Price has a ridiculous 9.7 K/BB ratio (58 strikeouts against six walks), and it's just a matter of time before the ERA starts to come back to earth. Now would be a good time to see if his owner would like to sell.
2 -- Three pitchers are tied for the league lead with two complete games. One, Johnny Cueto, won't surprise you. The others likely will -- Henderson Alvarez and Martin Perez.
99.5 -- Cueto's strand rate after allowing his first run to score on something other than a home run in his last start. The first nine runs he allowed this season all came by virtue of the long ball.
46 -- The combined save total for Francisco Rodriguez, Fernando Rodney, Tommy Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins. The lesson, as always: Never pay for saves.