Last night, May 13, 2014, Brewers' closer Francisco Rodriguez notched save number 16 in 2014 as he maintained a three run lead in the ninth inning of the Brewers 5-2 victory over the Pirates. He did not allow a base-runner while striking out one. This continues an excellent year for Rodriguez, who now has a 0.43 ERA and 0.62 WHIP over 21 innings.
On May 13, 2008, Francisco Rodriguez was still a member of the Los Angeles Angels. He pitched an inning for them that night, notching his 16th save on the season as he gave up a hit and struck out two to preserve the team's 2-0 lead over the White Sox.
In 2008, Rodriguez went on to finish with 62 saves, the most ever in a single season. He's on the same pace for the Brewers in 2014. Can he do it again? Can Francisco Rodriguez break his own record for saves in a season?
To earn such a high number of saves, a lot of things will need to happen. First, Rodriguez will have to stay as dominant as he has been so far in 2014. Well, not quite as dominant, I guess, but somewhat close. In all honesty, he wasn't that great in 2008: He had a 2.24 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP and a 3.22 FIP. Those are really good numbers, but it left room for error. Enough error that he also tied his career-high with seven blown saves in 2008.
If he can maintain even better numbers than he did in 2008, he'll be that much closer to achieving a new record. He's blown one save this year, in the only game he has allowed a run. Nobody can expect any pitcher to stay as dominant as Rodriguez has been, but he could continue to produce league-best numbers.
Second, the Brewers will have to trust that he can handle a high number of innings. If he hopes to reach 62 again, he'll need to have every save possibility possible. They can't hand save opportunities to guys like Will Smith or Tyler Thornburg willy-nilly. They can only give ninth inning duties away if Rodriguez has been particularly overworked.
So far, the Brewers have been pretty good about throwing Rodriguez in at nearly every opportunity. Will Smith is the only other pitcher on the team with a save, and that came on April 13 when he only needed to secure one out after Kyle Lohse went 8⅔ innings and Rodriguez had pitched the previous three days. He has also pitched four days in a row at one point. Rodriguez is currently on pace to throw 87 innings this season, a career-high. He has not pitched over 73 innings since 2004, a decade ago. So far the Brewers have been unafraid to bring him into the game often, but will that keep up as the season drags on?
Third, and tying in to number two, he'll have to have enough opportunities. That means the Brewers will have to keep winning, of course. And it means they'll have to keep winning a lot of close games. Fortunately for anyone hoping to see a record-breaking season, the Brewers are built to be in a lot of close games. The offense is not good enough to blow out teams often while the strong pitching should keep them in contention most days. Obviously Milwaukee has played a lot of close games already -- of 39 games so far, just 14 have been won by more than three runs. The Brewers have also been very good in close games, winning 18 of 25.
Still, the season is nearly a quarter over, only. There is still a lot of time left, and a blazing pace early in the season certainly does not mean Rodriguez -- or any player -- will keep it up for all of 2014. The Brewers have been playing close games so far and seem like the kind of team who are in for a lot more tight contests, but nobody can guess how the next four-and-a-half moths will go.
If Rodriguez does somehow match his 62 saves in 2008, he would vault all the way to eighth all-time with 366 career saves, one off from Jeff Reardon. At just 32 years old, K-Rod still has plenty of time left. He's reinvented himself so well, that there is all of a sudden a very real chance that he could continue to vault up the all-time saves list, perhaps even becoming the third ever to reach 500 saves.
Rodriguez wasn't even supposed to be the closer coming into 2014. He was supposed to be the set-up man for Jim Henderson until Henderson struggled in spring training and early in the regular season. Now, there's no way we could expect the Brewers to remove Rodriguez from the closer's role anytime soon.
Rodriguez has transformed himself from the fire-balling young reliever he was with the Angels. He no longer has the same velocity. But he's pitching smarter, and after years of control issues has just a 1.7 BB/9 while still striking out over 11.5 batters per nine innings. If he can maintain his success, he could be in for another record-setting year.
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