As part of SB Nation United, you're going to be seeing some new voices at Brew Crew Ball, SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We're beginning this week with Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
During his time with the Angels, from 2002 to 2008, Francisco Rodriguez was first a phenom, then a postseason legend, and finally an apparent future Hall of Famer, putting up a 2.35 ERA and logging 208 saves through age 26 -- 48 more than #2 on the list through that age. As a Met, despite very good numbers (just not as good), Rodriguez seemed like something of a disappointment throughout, and pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend's father.
As a Brewer, Rodriguez, a pending free agent whose Milwaukee career may have ended with his no-hit, one-strikeout inning on Wednesday, was... what? Two things, I guess: a savior first, throwing 29 brilliant innings to complement the already brilliant bullpen for the playoff squad of 2011; and a major bummer second, posting career worsts in strikeout rate and ERA, one of the weakest spots in a bullpen that's been full of them.
What is K-Rod going forward? On one hand, there's plenty of reason for optimism. He's been around forever, but will turn just 31 shortly before next spring training. His 9.00 strikeouts per nine innings are still excellent for any pitcher, of course -- just not great by his own standards -- and if he could get the ball down more to avoid the long ball (and especially if he could cut out a few walks), he could pretty easily snap right back to something close to the dominant reliever he was in late 2011 and for seven of his first eight years. Also, despite the drop in strikeouts, it should be noted that according to FanGraphs, Rodriguez's average fastball velocity was actually up this year -- to 91.8 miles per hour, the fastest it's been since 2009, though well off his early years - so it's certainly not clear that it's his arm strength that's failing him, if anything is.
On the other hand, there are plenty of warning flags. Rodriguez is still relatively young, but he also started very young and he's pitched a whole lot. He's pitched in more games through his age-30 season than any other pitcher in history, and it's not close -- he's pitched in 70 more games, or more than 10 percent more, than #2, Mitch Williams. Williams pitched only six innings after age 30. Two behind him -- Lindy McDaniel, Rollie Fingers, and Mike Jackson -- did very well after 30, but Armando Benitez (who largely burned out at 32) is in there, too, and each of those guys had made at least 90 fewer appearances through that age. Rodriguez is just 20th in innings through age 30 among pitchers who relieved in at least 90% of their appearances, but only four of the 19 ahead of him turned 30 in 1990 or later, and of those four -- Eric Plunk, Terry Adams, Danny Graves and Mike Jackson -- only Jackson pitched at all well after turning 30.
It's also worth remembering that Rodriguez has never had the prettiest mechanics. The team that signs Rodriguez is getting a high-effort pitcher with a lot more mileage on his arm than his years would imply, one that could be in the process of a rapid decline.
He might also still have plenty left, though, and if I'm the Brewers, I think I take a long look at bringing him back again. The days of huge, multi-year contracts to relievers like the one Rodriguez signed with the Mets are not over, certainly, but ending. Even if they weren't, of course, Rodriguez isn't getting one. He signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Brewers after accepting arbitration this past winter, and could probably be had for a bit less than that after this year's performance (maybe $6 million?). The Brewers -- a "very good baseball team with a really, really bad bullpen" -- need all the help they can get in this area, and there seems to be a reasonable chance that Rodriguez could bounce back and become a big help again.
You certainly wouldn't want to risk having him accept arbitration again, but if Rodriguez can be brought back for a similar deal to the one he ultimately signed this year, the Brewers have to seriously consider it. I think almost every team should, but the Brewers get the first crack at it. K-Rod still has his velocity (or most of it) and his ability to miss bats, and it seems much too early to give up on the rest of it coming back in a big way.