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Are You For Real? Surprising MLB Pitcher Starts from Week 25

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

It's our final breakdown of the 2022 season, and boy it's a good one. We get to take a peak at a decent start from 2022 bust Eduardo Rodriguez in Detroit, and we look at a dominant performance from the relative unknown Johan Oviedo of Pittsburgh.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo and are accurate as of 09/26/2022.

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Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers – 39% Rostered

2022 Stats (prior to this start): 72.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 10% K-BB%

09/23 @ CHW: 6 IP, 8 H, 3 H, 1 BB, 3 K

It’s been a disappointing debut season in Detroit for Rodriguez, who inked a 5-year, $77 million dollar deal with the club this past offseason ostensibly to bring some veteran stability to an otherwise young and developing rotation. That hasn’t quite been the case for Rodriguez, who as of writing this put up his highest FIP (4.34) since 2016 along with the lowest strikeout rate (18.4%) of his big league career.

Despite his struggles, we know there’s talent in this left arm, and we saw a bit of that talent get flashed on Friday as Rodriguez delivered his second straight quality start and fourth victory on the season. His mixed performance leaves us with plenty of questions, such as whether Rodriguez can be useful during the final week of the season, and whether he can return to previous heights as a fringe top-40 starting pitcher next season. Let’s put Rodriguez under the microscope to see what’s gone wrong this year and whether it’s fixable.

A veteran of the big leagues, it’s hard to believe that Rodriguez is still just 29 years old. He’s been in the big leagues since 2015, and his name has been on the fantasy radar dating back to 2010 when he signed as an international free agent with the Baltimore Orioles. He was a highly rated prospect coming up (he was used by Baltimore to acquire Andrew Miller in a deadline deal many years ago) and has been relevant ever since. Rodriguez boasts a deep arsenal consisting of five pitches, which include a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, cutter, and changeup. He sure throws a lot of pitches, but one pitch has long been a standout for Rodriguez, and that is his changeup.

Characterized by its low spin and exceptional break, Rodriguez’s changeup has been his go-to strikeout pitch over the course of his major league career. For his career batters are hitting just .243 against the pitch with a .653 OPS and 88 wRC+, the best marks of any pitch for Rodriguez. It’s been a strikeout machine for him as well, with opponents flailing away at the offspeed offering for a 17.8% swinging strike rate and 41.2% chase rate all time.

Unfortunately, things haven’t been quite the same for Rodriguez this season, as batters are hitting .310 against the pitch with a .586 SLG and .398 wOBA. What’s changed, exactly? It’s quite simple, which is that Rodriguez has lost a few inches of break with the pitch, making it no longer a standout in that department. Here’s a look at Rodriguez’s changeup break year over year.

That’s a sharp drop downwards, something that may’ve even been beginning in 2019, but we didn’t see the full effects until the last two years. Rodriguez still earned a lot of strikeouts in 2021, but that primarily came due to a fluky strikeout rate on his fastball which was never sustainable, especially considering the deep decline Rodriguez’s fastball velocity has been in over the years as well. Here’s a look at how Rodriguez fastball velocity has dipped with time.

He used to be able to sit between 93-94 MPH, but now throws his fastball a pedestrian 91.8 MPH. This physical decline is surprising given Rodriguez’s age, but the southpaw has had a slew of injuries over the course of his career and even sat out the 2020 season due to a heart condition he developed from COVID.

He has spent time on the injured list in every big league season since his rookie year except for 2019 when he uncharacteristically threw 203.1 innings. One has to wonder whether Rodriguez is experiencing an early physical decline due to his injury history and may not be capable of replicating past performances. This take may seem reactionary, however, there have been cracks in Rodriguez’s game dating back to last season. His changeup woefully underperformed last year too, and his velocity has yet to recover from the year off in 2020.

In fact, Rodriguez isn’t even throwing his changeup as much as he had in years past. Rodriguez has only used his changeup 15.5% of the time this season, compared to a 22.6% usage rate in his previous three seasons. He’s been attempting to supplement the lack of changeups with his cutter, but with a .772 OPS against and a paltry 7.8% swinging strike rate, his cutter lacks both the effectiveness and strikeout oomph of his changeup. This is a shift in the wrong direction for Rodriguez, and he’s not giving us many signs of a turnaround.

Is there any hope for Rodriguez? If nothing else, Tigers fans might be worried they bought another lemon on the free agent market. Unfortunately, to turn things around Rodriguez would need to make strides forward with the measurables on his pitches, chiefly the velocity and movement. Not impossible, but awfully unlikely for an injury-prone hurler who’s going to be 30 next year. In redraft leagues, he might be a popular bounce-back candidate for 2023, but this is one that this writer will likely be avoiding next draft season. Too many big changes need to happen for him to be a top-40 starter again. In dynasty leagues, fantasy managers should try and get what they can for him while his name still has value.

Verdict:

Once a strikeout-heavy changeup specialist, Rodriguez’s changeup has lost a little mustard over the years, as has his heater. He’s attempted to correct for his loss in changeup effectiveness with cutters, but that has led to underwhelming—and in some cases downright awful—results. Perhaps the most worrying stat for Rodriguez is a 6.5% swinging strike rate, which is the second lowest among starting pitchers (min. 70 IP) behind Adrian Houser. There’s not a lot to like about this version of Rodriguez, and he’s an avoid until he can showcase a tangible leap forward.

Johan Oviedo, Pittsburgh Pirates – 4% Rostered

2022 Stats (prior to this start): 39 IP, 3.69 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 12.1% K-BB%

09/24 vs. CHC: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 7 K

Oviedo was electric on Saturday, firing seven scoreless innings while striking out seven en route to his fourth victory on the season. Oviedo had been thrust into a starting opportunity with Pittsburgh after coming over in the deadline, and while he’d shown brief flashes of talent here and there, Saturday represents his best start to date. With the Pirates roster in a continual state of flux, Oviedo certainly has an opportunity to prove himself and carve out a starting role for next season if he continues to impress. Is there anything here with the 24-year-old righty, or is this just another September flash in the pan?

Originally signed as an international free agent out of Cuba by the Cardinals, Oviedo was never much of a prospect on the national scene but did garner a decent ranking within the Cardinals organization. He was dealt to the Pirates at this year’s trade deadline in the Jose Quintana swap, and the Pittsburgh brass should be pretty happy with this return considering they picked Quintana up off the scrap heap heading into 2022.

Oviedo works with a four-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. It’s a deep enough arsenal, but it’s mostly been about the fastball and slider for Oviedo, who has thrown the two pitches a combined 84.3% of the time this season. It’s hard to blame Oviedo for leaning on those two pitches so heavily, as both offerings have been quite effective this season.

Let’s start with the slider for Oviedo, which has been the main attraction for him in terms of strikeouts. He has an impressive 19.3% swinging strike rate with the pitch this season, along with a 42.4% chase rate. Batters have managed just a .215 AVG, .342 SLG, and .275 wOBA off the pitch this season. Even more remarkable, Oviedo has even better expected stats with this pitch, including a .175 xBA and .230 xwOBA. A high-spin offering with average movement, the pitch comes alive late and has a pronounced break away from right-handed hitters. Here are a pair of examples from this start.

That’s a textbook slider, one that would be incredibly hard for any big leaguer to handle on a two-strike count. This pitch is especially deadly when paired with Oviedo’s other primary pitch, the four-seam fastball.

Averaging 95.9 MPH with his fastball, one might expect Oviedo’s fastball velocity to take a hit when transitioning from the bullpen in St. Louis to the rotation in Pittsburgh, but that has not been the case thus far. Oviedo is averaging 96.3 MPH on the gun since joining Pittsburgh’s rotation, and averaging 96.8 in this start against the Cubs. Even on his final pitch of the outing, Oviedo threw a 97.8 MPH fastball, showing that he has the ability to pitch effectively deep into games.

It's not just about heat with Oviedo’s fastball either, as he boasts above-average spin and vertical movement with his four-seamer. Here are two examples from this start.

This pitch has all the ingredients of a plus offering for a starter, and with this fastball-slider combo at his disposal, Oviedo could certainly be an above-average strikeout pitcher at the major league level.

So, if Oviedo’s stuff is so good, why isn’t he a bigger deal? He never sniffed a top-100 prospect ranking, and the Cardinals happily traded him for a rental. Oviedo has two major issues: his arsenal lacks depth, and he has poor command of his pitches. First, we should address the arsenal, because Oviedo’s not quite as one-dimensional as his usage makes it seem.

He wields a decent curveball that he throws about 10% of the time, and the usage has been slowly rising (he threw it 15.9% of the time in this start). Batters have hit just .125 off Oviedo’s curve this season, and with above-average spin and vertical movement, this pitch has the potential to be another plus offering.

The bigger issue for Oviedo is command, as his has been atrocious at times in the big leagues. It’s quite astonishing that Oviedo didn’t issue a single walk in this start, because the righty had allowed a stomach-churning 9.22 BB/9 in his previous four starts. Walks have been a huge issue for him throughout his career as evidenced by an untenable 11.4% career walk rate. Heck, they’ve been a problem for Oviedo at every level of the minor leagues too, including rookie ball. Saturday was an encouraging sign, but consider Oviedo wild and dangerous until he shows us otherwise. He will likely always have walk issues, but if Oviedo can figure things out to a degree in the future he could be a nice fantasy asset.

Verdict:

Oviedo is a project pitcher, but there’s a lot to like about this stuff. He boasts two plus offerings in his fastball and slider, and his curveball has shown some promise to act as an effective third pitch going forward. Control is and will likely always be an issue for Oviedo, but if he can find a way to rein the walks in he could become a solid starting pitcher with strikeout upside. Absolutely nobody will pay Oviedo any attention next draft season, so this writer will be looking at him near the end of drafts or for $1 in deeper salary cap leagues if he can secure a rotation spot. He’s probably too risky to start at this point in the season, but if you’re desperate and/or need a miracle, he is lined up for two more starts, both against the Cardinals.



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