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K-Rod underrated while still in top form

Veteran closer should be stabilizing force in Tigers' bullpen
MLB.com @LyleMSpencer

If you were to draw up a list of the Major Leagues' most underrated players, new Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez would have to merit serious consideration. Few veterans have been so good for so long and are still close to their peak performance level.

Acquired from Milwaukee in November for fellow Venezuelan Javier Betancourt and a player to be named, Rodriguez, 34, is coming off one of his best seasons, nailing down 38 of 40 save attempts with a career-best WHIP of 0.86. His 95 percent saves success rate was second to Mark Melancon's 96.2 for the Pirates.

If you were to draw up a list of the Major Leagues' most underrated players, new Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez would have to merit serious consideration. Few veterans have been so good for so long and are still close to their peak performance level.

Acquired from Milwaukee in November for fellow Venezuelan Javier Betancourt and a player to be named, Rodriguez, 34, is coming off one of his best seasons, nailing down 38 of 40 save attempts with a career-best WHIP of 0.86. His 95 percent saves success rate was second to Mark Melancon's 96.2 for the Pirates.

At $7.5 million for 2016, K-Rod could be one of the best bargains in the industry for a Tigers club that has reloaded for a return to prominence. He figures to wear well now that his best pitch is a deadly changeup, which complements a fastball that sits at 90 mph and an overhand curve that has mesmerized hitters for 14 years.

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For Tigers fans who in recent seasons have endured more than their share of late-game heartache, the man from Caracas should be a welcome relief. Detroit's bullpen, with its 4.38 ERA and 59 percent saves success rate, was the second most inefficient in the league last season behind the A's.

In eight seasons used exclusively as a closer, K-Rod has 336 saves in 377 opportunities -- a success rate of .891 identical to the career figure of the incomparable Mariano Rivera. Trevor Hoffman comes in at .888.

You might be surprised to discover that among all active pitchers with at least 750 innings, K-Rod leads in saves (386), strikeouts per nine innings (10.76), lowest batting average allowed (.204) and games finished (602).

Rodriguez trails only Clayton Kershaw in ERA (2.69) and opponents' slugging percentage (.330) and is sixth in on-base percentage (.285) yielded.

Oh, yes, one more thing. K-Rod is the all-time single-season saves king with 62 in 2008, his final season with the Angels. He saved more games than the Mariners and Nationals won that year.

A meteor in 2002, emerging from obscurity to help drive the Angels to the World Series title with his dominant setup work for closer Troy Percival, K-Rod has been a force in a variety of roles and locales.

In spite of consistent production, Rodriguez has remained somewhat obscured by bigger names. He hasn't helped himself in the image department by being reluctant to engage the media.

Covering K-Rod in Anaheim, my visits at his locker seeking an interview usually were greeted with something along the lines of, "What? Why me?" Occasionally he would open up and have some fascinating things to say, but he's a serious man who comes to do a job and isn't much interested in attention.

Rodriguez was just 27 when the Angels let him go to free agency and the Mets after his record-breaking 2008 season. His travels subsequently took him to Milwaukee, to Baltimore for half the 2013 season and back to the Brewers.

Without much fanfare, Rodriguez was brilliant in 2015 for a club that won just 68 games in the stacked National League Central.

The toughest pitch in the sport on which to do damage, according to the Bill James Handbook, was K-Rod's changeup, which he used to hold opposing hitters to a .322 OPS. The next toughest pitch to handle was the slider of Yankees lefty Andrew Miller, restricting hitters to a .343 OPS.

It doesn't help hitters much that they know the change is coming. K-Rod unleashed it 43 percent of the time last season, compared to 45 percent usage of his fastball and 12 percent with the big curve.

In game-changing situations, K-Rod took it to another level. He held hitters to an .081 batting average with runners in scoring position, lowest in the Majors. His .139 average yielded with men on base was second in the NL to Kevin Siegrist's .130 for the Cardinals.

Among all MLB relievers, only Wade Davis (.211) and Kenley Jansen (.215) limited hitters to a lower OBP than K-Rod's .229.

Rodriguez put together that glowing numbers package while pitching half his games in Miller Park, the second-most hitter-friendly park in the league over the past three seasons.

Moving to a more neutral Comerica Park, K-Rod should be a major asset for the Tigers. He's not the overpowering kid who struck out 28 hitters in 18 2/3 postseason innings in 2002, but this intense competitor is still among the best at his pressure-filled craft.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Detroit Tigers, Francisco Rodriguez