|"Forget about the heater Wandy, give him the curveball" - Bizarro Lou Brown
Not so long ago Wandy Rodriguez looked like just another long reliever or fifth starter, going 19-20 with a 5.58 ERA in 264 innings through two seasons with the Astros after posting a 4.65 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A.
He didn't throw especially hard, didn't induce tons of ground balls or miss many bats, his control wasn't very good, he was already 26 years old by the time he debuted in the majors, and the diminutive left-hander weighed 150 pounds soaking wet.
Yet here we are just a few years later and Rodriguez has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the National League, striking out 11 batters while beating the Rockies yesterday at Coors Field to improve to 4-2 with a 1.90 ERA on the season.
Rodriguez was the Astros' best starter last season too, posting a 3.54 ERA in 137 innings spread over 25 starts. Baseball history is certainly filled with plenty of late bloomers, especially among southpaw pitchers, but what's interesting about Rodriguez's turnaround is that it's been dramatic without involving a sudden increase in fastball velocity.
YEAR SO% BB% FIP FBmph 2005 14.3 9.5 5.12 89.1 2006 16.0 10.3 4.86 89.4 2007 20.2 7.9 4.18 88.9 2008 22.3 7.5 3.62 88.9 2009 24.1 7.5 2.36 89.5
SO% stands for strikeout percentage and as you can see Rodriguez has missed more and more bats every season, going from 14.3 percent as a rookie in 2005 to 24.1 percent so far this year. The major-league average is usually around 17-18 percent, so Rodriguez has gone from being 20 percent below average to 40 percent above average.
And he's racked up those strikeouts without hurting his control, as his walk rate has remained steady at 7-8 percent following some initial improvement. All of which is why his Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP--basically what his ERA should be if you take luck out of the equation--has gone from 5.12 to 4.86 to 4.18 to 3.62 to 2.36. In five years he's basically morphed from long reliever to No. 1 starter.
Yet if you look at the "FBmph" column on the above table, you can see that his average fastball velocity has been 88-89 miles per hour the entire time. So how has Rodriguez managed to nearly double his strikeout rate, maintain his walk rate, and turn himself into a legitimate ace without actually throwing any harder? Curveballs.
Through his first two seasons Rodriguez threw his curveball about 22 percent of the time, but that number jumped to 25 percent in 2007, 30 percent in 2008, and 34 percent so far this season. In fact, Rodriguez has thrown a curveball more often than any other starter in baseball this season and only Ben Sheets threw a higher percentage of curves last year.
As a wise man once said: "What you need is a curveball. In the show, everyone can hit heat."