We now understand why Doug Melvin was so vague when asked who would close for the Brewers in the aftermath of Tuesday’s blockbuster trade for Francisco Rodriguez. According to Ron Roenicke, who intends to sit down with both K-Rod and current closer John Axford today, “I think there are going to be times that both of them are used in that setup role. We’ll just see how that goes. I know [K-Rod] really wants to play for a winner — that’s big on his mind.”
I can’t say I’m a big fan of a closer-by-committee arrangement here. Since blowing the save on opening day, John Axford has been stellar. If he has one Achilles’ heel, it’s that he allows too many guys to reach base (1.36 WHIP), many via the walk (3.7 BB/9). But Rodriguez isn’t any better in that regard (1.41 WHIP), and Axford is also striking out slightly more batters. Axford also has better velocity; his fastball regularly sits in the 95-96 range, while the velocity on Rodriguez’s fastball has annually decreased and now clocks in at just 90-91.
I thought it might be helpful to see just what else our new part-time closer is working with. K-Rod is throwing his fastball about 60% of the time, the highest amount for years where pitch f/x data is available, despite the fact that it it slightly below average (-1.3 runs above average per 100 fastballs). Rodriguez also has a plus curve that falls in at about 77 mph, but his real filth pitch is his changeup, which he throws about 15% of the time and is regularly clocked at 82-83. K-Rod will throw an occasional two-seamer with good movement in the same range as his fastball (90-91).
Although K-Rod has been good this year, his best stuff might still be ahead of him. He’s been somewhat unlucky with a .342 batting average on balls in play, the highest of his career in any season where he’s pitched more than 50 innings (actually, K-Rod’s BABIP has never hit .300 before). His expected ERA (2.98), which adjusts ERA for defense, is slightly better than his traditional ERA (3.16), though his traditional ERA could rise with the Brewers’ porous defense behind him. K-Rod’s fastball may be losing velocity, but he’s adjusted by inducing more ground balls than ever before (51.7%), while his percentages of line drives (14.2%) and fly balls (34.2%) are at career lows. That should play well at Miller Park.
Of course, we’re still not sure in what situation Rodriguez will be utilizing his stuff. Roenicke is on record as supporting defined roles for his bullpen,* which makes his decision to use both Rodriguez and Axford in save situations all the more surprising. The fact that Roenicke is unwilling to assign a role to the Brewers’ new acquisition is somewhat troubling, but it may have to do with his prior relationship with K-Rod as a coach for the Angels. Roenicke provided this scouting report, which may help explain his thinking:
“He’s a gamer. The tighter the game is, the more he wants the ball, which is really nice. You’re not always going to have clean innings with him, but he always makes the big pitch when he needs to.”
*Kam Loe in the eighth, anyone?
EDIT: Lest anyone misconstrue this post, there is still no way that the Brewers will allow K-Rod to finish 21 games and vest that whopping $17.5 M option for 2012. So we know he isn’t going to close all that much, but why use him in that role at all when Axford has been so good? Not unless Axford is injured or unavailable, I say.