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Tigers State Their Intent With a Savvy Signing

It may not seem like it on the surface, but Eduardo Rodriguez turned in the best season of his career in 2021.

Eduardo Rodríguez’s free agency was set up as a Rorschach test for his most recent stat line.

Would people see the Red Sox pitcher’s career-worst ERA (4.74)? Would they focus on the dull roundness of his 100 ERA+, marking the first time Rodríguez had pitched more than 110 innings in a season and failed to register as above average? Would they seize on the fact that he had averaged more than one hit per inning pitched? (His 9.8 H/9 was among the 10 worst marks in baseball among pitchers with more than 140 IP.) Or would people instead look at the fact that Rodríguez had just posted a career-high strikeout rate (27.4%) and career-low walk rate (7.0%)? Would they look at the statistical evidence that suggested he’d had unusually bad luck on batted balls while playing in front of a subpar defense? Would they see how good he was at limiting hard contact—one of the 10 lowest average exit velocities in MLB?

The Tigers looked at the ink blots of his stat line and saw the latter group of numbers. Detroit is reportedly signing Rodríguez to a five-year deal worth at least $77 million—providing an anchor for a young rotation on a team awaiting its first winning season in six years. It’s sensible for Tigers fans to hope that more is still to come this winter. (Perhaps, say, on the shortstop market?) But Rodríguez’s addition helps to lay a great foundation—a pitcher who offers solid rotation depth at a reasonable price with plenty of upside.

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez (57) pitches against the Washington Nationals during the second inning at Nationals Park.

The particulars of his stat line aside, it could sometimes feel like a marvel that Rodríguez was pitching at all in 2021, let alone doing so capably. He did not play in 2020 after being diagnosed with myocarditis following a bout of COVID-19. (Rodríguez was the only known major-league player to be diagnosed with the condition; he was barred from any form of physical activity for three months while he recovered.) That made his performance this year feel like a triumphant comeback—simply by virtue of the fact that it was happening at all. But his performance was admirable in its own right, too, with some of the best work of his career.

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That might sound like an exceedingly strange thing to say about a year in which a pitcher posted his worst-ever ERA. (Again—4.74 is quite the ugly number here!) But it’s worth peeling back a few layers of context. First, Rodríguez’s peripheral stats were not just more encouraging than his ERA, but flat-out great. He was one of just 10 starters this season to post a strikeout rate of 27% or more and a walk rate of 7% or less. (The other nine include Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and Corbin Burnes.) Second, his luck on batted balls was remarkably, historically terrible. The batting average on balls in play across the league this year was .290. The BABIP for Rodríguez was… much higher than that. See if you can find him on the list of the highest BABIP seasons for pitchers with more than 100 IP since 1950:

Pitcher (Year)BABIP

Mitch Keller (2021)

.392

Glendon Rusch (2003)

.386

Rafael Montero (2017)

.376

Joey Hamilton (2001)

.370

Mark Gubicza (1993)

.370

Zach Duke (2007)

.370

Eduardo Rodríguez (2021)

.364

Aaron Sele (1996)

.363

David Weathers (1998)

.363

That’s some bad luck. Which does come with a few caveats—“luck” can be a bit of a fuzzy term for BABIP, as there are factors that can and do make a difference for a pitcher, such as the type of contact he generates and the quality of the defense behind him. It’s not as purely random as a dice-roll or coin-flip. But it’s still largely out of a pitcher’s grasp. Put all of this together, and it’s clear that in the areas that were under his immediate control, Rodríguez excelled: He struck out batters at a higher clip, and walked them at a lower one, than he had ever before. He generally succeeded at limiting hard contact. (His average exit velocity of 86.5 mph tied Max Fried for eighth-lowest among pitchers with 100 IP.) The fact that such an unusually high proportion of his batted balls got through for hits made his performance look worse than it should have. But it’s not his fault.

Add all of the above to what had generally been an upward career trajectory for Rodríguez—before his heart issues in 2020, he’d had a breakout 2019, which itself had followed positive steps forward in 2018—and it makes sense to see him as worth the investment here. (That’s true even with the fact that the Red Sox had tagged him with the qualifying offer, which means that Detroit must provide Boston with draft-pick compensation.) Another key factor that drove his quick free agency? He’s just 28. Rodríguez was the youngest pitcher on SI’s Top 50 Free Agent Rankings. That makes a five-year contract for him seem considerably less risky than it might for someone even just a few years older.

This all makes him a quality addition to an otherwise inexperienced rotation in Detroit. (The Tigers’ core includes Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize and Matt Manning; each currently has less than two years of service time.) It would behoove the team to keep adding—an extra veteran starter would provide some useful depth as the team looks to begin making a splash in the AL Central. For now, however, there’s reason to be pleased. Detroit got an early jump on adding to its roster by trading for catcher Tucker Barnhart right after the World Series, and that’s now been joined by another early winter move, this one even bigger. Rodríguez’s 2021 was better than it looked, and that sort of performance could be able to meaningfully help the Tigers in 2022, and beyond.

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