Red Sox: Dissecting what’s wrong with Eduardo Rodriguez

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Eduardo Rodriguez #57 of the Boston Red Sox reacts as he exits the game during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 20, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 20: Eduardo Rodriguez #57 of the Boston Red Sox reacts as he exits the game during the seventh inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 20, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez has hit a rough patch

Eduardo Rodriguez appeared poised for a career year when he burst out of the gate by winning his first four starts, exceeding all expectations of a bounce-back campaign following a lost season. The narrative has since shifted to one of concern as the ace of the Boston Red Sox rotation has unraveled this month.

Rodriguez was roughed up for a season-high five earned runs and 11 hits in a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday. It was his second consecutive loss after he had notched a victory in each of his first five decisions.

The lefty has allowed at least four runs in three of his last four starts. He owns a 6.00 ERA in May and his 4.70 ERA for the season is now the worst among Red Sox starting pitchers.

Almost every pitcher will hit an inevitable slump over the course of a long season. The key is identifying the reason behind those struggles and making the proper adjustments. So, what’s wrong with Rodriguez?

Much has been made about his declining velocity. Rodriguez has averaged 92.1 mph on his four-seam fastball this season, per Baseball Savant. He averaged 92.6 mph on 27 fastballs in his last start against Toronto. That’s down slightly from the 93 mph he averaged in 2019 and he sat in the 93-94 mph range in previous years.

It’s hardly unusual for starting pitchers to work with reduced velocity early in the season as it takes them time to ramp up. That’s particularly true for Rodriguez, who missed the entire 2020 season while recover from myocarditis. He was also limited at the end of spring training by arm fatigue which delayed his season debut. A slight dip in velocity isn’t unexpected under the circumstances.

While Rodriguez would certainly prefer his fastball to see an uptick in velocity, Alex Cora doesn’t view this as the reason for his struggles. The Red Sox manager is focused more on where Rodriguez is locating his pitches rather than how hard he’s throwing, according to MassLIve’s Chris Cotillo.

"“Command is not where he usually is, and that’s something that he needs — regardless of his stuff — if he’s throwing hard or his velocity is down,” Cora said. “I think the cutter actually is bigger than usual. We’ll try to find out why. It’s actually playing like a hanging slider instead of him being sharp and dotting that pitch whenever he wants to. He has been able to elevate the last two starts but there has been a lot of contact. I think teams are doing a good job staying with him and going the other way. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we can do.”"

When we think of a pitcher’s command, we often look at their ability to throw strikes. That has been a concern in the past for Rodriguez, who allowed a league-leading 75 walks in 2019 and owns a career 3.1 BB/9. That hasn’t been the case this year. Rodriguez has been extraordinarily stingy with the free passes, cutting his walk rate to 1.6 BB/9.

Rodriguez has allowed more than one walk in a game only once this season, which happened to be his best outing this month when he walked three Baltimore Orioles but allowed only one run. Walking batters hasn’t been the reason Rodriguez is struggling.

The command that Cora referred to relates to locating within the strike zone. When you miss spots outside of the zone it typically results in a ball that can lead to more walks. When you miss in the zone, it can lead to the pitch getting hammered.

Rodriguez is allowing a career-high 35.7% Hard Hit rate, up from 29.9% in 2019 when he ranked in the top eight percent of the league. He’s also allowing a career-high 9.3 Barrel Percentage. E-Rod is striking out batters and limiting walks. The problem is that when hitters do make contact, they are making solid contact far too frequently.

Cora pointed out a notable difference in how Rodriguez is throwing his typically reliable cutter. E-Rod held opposing hitters to a .243 average and .374 slugging percentage with the pitch in 2019. This year, opponents are hitting .395 with a .684 SLG against his cutter. This is his third-most frequently utilized selection from his five-pitch arsenal so Rodriguez can’t afford for the cutter to be this ineffective.

Rodriguez will need to work on identifying what he’s doing differently that has resulted in the pitch being flat over the strike zone instead of cutting to the spot he intends to locate it. A slight tweak to his mechanics could be all it takes to regain his command of the cutter but he’ll need to work with the Red Sox coaching staff to make the adjustments.

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There’s been no indication that Rodriguez isn’t healthy and we know from his strong April appearances that he didn’t forget how to pitch during his year off. E-Rod is simply in a rut but he’s far too talented to worry about if he’ll get back on track. It’s a matter of when.