The fact that Chris Rodriguez is even in the majors is a success story. The fact that he’s succeeding at a high level is that much more amazing.
Rodriguez was the Angels fourth-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, a classic high school pitcher with big stuff but plenty of risk. After the draft, Rodriguez flashed strong stuff and command to boot in a short 11 1/3-inning stint in Rookie Ball, allowing two earned runs, striking out 17, and walking three batters. Heading into 2017, Rodriguez was a sneaky, under-the-radar prospect in a barren Angels farm system and projected as one of the only real impact MLB arms in the system.
After 57 hit-or-miss innings in 2017 (6.16 ERA, 56:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Rodriguez underwent a stretch of injuries that wiped out his entire 2018 season and pretty much the entire 2019 season (9 1/3 innings). A series of back injuries, including surgery in 2019, and the pandemic season of 2020 meant we saw Rodriguez throw fewer than 10 professional innings in three seasons. Suffice to say, the odds of a pitcher going through this many injuries, missing that much time, and not making it past High-A ball have slim chances to make the majors.
That’s exactly what Rodriguez did, however. After throwing an estimated 70 innings in 2020, either at the alternate site or in Arizona, Rodriguez entered camp this year as a sneaky candidate to make an impact in 2021. And while many thought he could find his way up at some point, I’m not sure anybody realistically expected him to break camp with the club out of the bullpen. Again, that’s exactly what Rodriguez did and he has more than earned his spot in the majors.
Through the first 11 1/3 innings of his MLB career, Rodriguez has a 3.18 ERA along with a 31.4 strikeout percentage and 2.64 Expected ERA (based on quality and quantity of contact against him). Rodriguez has established himself as a trusted multi-inning reliever who has bridged the gap between a shaky Angels rotation and back-end of the bullpen. The sheer stuff and ability to miss bats, induce weak contact, and go multiple innings makes him one of the most valuable arms on a questionable Angels pitching staff.
To get a better idea of just how good Rodriguez might be, let’s explore some of the characteristics that make him one of the dynamic arms not just for the Angels but in all of Major League Baseball.
The rare sinker/curveball characteristics
Rodriguez relies heavily on a sinker/curveball combination that he’s used nearly 90 percent of the time. There’s a good reason for it, too.
Rodriguez’s upper-90’s sinker and mid-80’s breaking ball aren’t just thrown hard; they also have movement that pretty much make him a unicorn. As evidenced here, there are only three other MLB pitchers who currently have the combination of both velocity and movement on a sinker/breaking ball combination.
The stuff is top-shelf, especially the sinker/curveball.
There are only four pitchers with a 96+ mph sinker w/ 40-ish combined inches of movement and an 85+ mph breaking ball with 50+ combined inches of movement:
Chris Rodriguez pic.twitter.com/6GNQbWdfwI
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) April 28, 2021
That’s some pretty good company to be in. What helps the sinker/curveball even more is the way that these pitches spin. To keep this as simple as possible, Rodriguez “mirrors” his sinker and curveball well. That is, the sinker and curveball have spin that moves in the complete opposite direction. Think about this like a clock: a 12 o’clock pitch will mirror well with a 6 o’clock pitch while a 2 o’clock pitch will mirror well with an 8 o’clock pitch. You can read more about this in-depth in a January MLB.com article from Mike Petriello.
In Rodriguez’s case, he pretty much has the perfect spin mirroring with his sinker/curveball combination. The sinker spins at 1:30 while the curveball spins at 7:30.
What makes Rodriguez’s sinker/curveball combination even nastier is they mirror each other extremely well. In other words, the two pitches spin in complete opposite directions.
This visual from Baseball Savant illustrates this point. pic.twitter.com/Cih3yexAtl
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) April 28, 2021
What this all means is Rodriguez has extremely uncanny characteristics with his sinker and curveball, in terms of velocity, movement, and deception. These two pitches alone are nasty but he has a few other pitches that make him even more interesting.
The four-pitch mix
As mentioned above, he’s throwing the sinker/curveball pretty much all the time. He’s also mixing in a hard slider and change-up a combined 10 percent of the time. Rodriguez has always had a potential starters package not just because of the sheer stuff and above-average strike-throwing ability but also because of his four-pitch mix. I’d venture to guess that we’ll see these two other pitches thrown more often as he gets more reps.
The slider and change-up, too, have some fun characteristics that are unique. The slider is interesting because it operates more like a hard cutter (90 mph) with extra movement. It’s almost a hybrid of the slider/cutter but has the characteristics to be effective, Meanwhile, only nine pitchers throw a harder change-up (90 mph) and he gets decent movement while doing so.
Add it all up and you get some fun comparisons in terms of each individual pitch.
Rodriguez also mixes in an extremely hard change-up and slider. Here are the best comps for each pitch that I could find based on velocity, movement, and spin:
Sinker: Sandy Alcantara
Curveball: Luke Jackson
Change-Up: Griffin Canning
Slider: Jordan Romano pic.twitter.com/W3fkPcmB2J
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) April 28, 2021
A four-pitch mix like this is extremely exciting for the short-term prospects for both Rodriguez and the Angels. It’s even more exciting when you see the results he’s getting and the possibility of him being a starter long-term.
The success and the starter/reliever dilemma
There’s pretty much no question that Rodriguez is a MLB-caliber arm, based on what we’ve touched on here. The numbers are all there and Rodriguez is doing so from numerous perspectives. It’s not just the sheer swing-and-miss stuff Rodriguez possesses; he also generates a ton of weak contact on the ground. To have MLB success, there’s a good chance that you need strikeout stuff, strong command, or an ability to limit hard contact. Rodriguez is doing two of those things at a high level right now.
Rodriguez is one of four pitchers this year (minimum 10 innings) who have at least a 60 percent ground-ball rate and a 30 percent strikeout rate. The others: Tejay Antone, Shohei Ohtani, and Garrett Whitlock. Those are some fun names, given Antone’s Statcast prowess, Ohtani’s ace-caliber stuff, and Whitlock’s zero earned runs in his first 11 1/3 MLB innings. Rodriguez is more than earning it with a whiff rate in 66th percentile and barrel rate in the 82nd percentile.
This leads to the question of what to do with Rodriguez from here. On one hand, Rodriguez clearly has the repertoire to make it work as a starter and is now a few years removed from the injuries. The Angels, obviously, could use a starting pitcher of Rodriguez’s caliber. The 13.7 walk percentage is something he’ll need to clean up but not something that would prevent him from attempting to start. On the other hand, he’s a 22-year-old with a long injury history and has already shown an ability to handle an important multi-inning relief role.
The cop-out answer or simple solution might be something in the middle. The Angels don’t have to commit to either role now or in the long-term, really. Rodriguez could operate as a swingman, pitching multi-inning outings out of the bullpen and starting a few games by giving the club 3-5 innings. Baseball has trended in this direction for a while and based on Rodriguez’s dilemma, he could be the perfect pitcher to slide into that role. He could, theoretically, give you 75-100 innings a season in this type of role. With that kind of arm, there could be some serious impact for the Angels.
Regardless of what role he ends up in, Chris Rodriguez is here to stay and that’s a major success story in itself. After barely throwing any professional innings for three seasons, Rodriguez is now firmly in the conversation for high-leverage innings on a competitive Angels club. It’s a fun story now and should be a fun one to follow for the years to follow.