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Jefry Rodriguez and that sinking feeling

It’s a pun about pitch selection. He’s actually pretty good

Cleveland Indians v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Of the many ailments currently plaguing the Cleveland Indians, at least one has gotten a partial cure in Jefry Rodriguez.

The injuries to Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber threatened to utterly derail whatever tenuous grip the Tribe had on the season, what with the offense flatlining and the bullpen suffering through fits and starts. Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer couldn’t pitch every day, after all, and the terror of the unknown or another Cody Anderson start loomed large.

But here comes Rodriguez, newly acquired in the Yan Gomes deal, starting games, giving the Indians a chance to win and looking every bit the major leaguer. It’s a pleasant surprise in an irritating season, and the way he’s doing it is a bit of a throwback.

To understand why what Rodriguez is doing is so different from his peers requires a bit of recent pitching history. Namely a pitch that was once a mainstay pitch in any thrower’s arsenal — the sinker.

Since 2007, when Pitch Info (formerly Pitch F/X) tracked its usage, the sinker has become popular then slowly but surely fall out of style. It peaked in 2012 at 22.5 percent of all pitches thrown, but as the slider has become the in vogue pitch the sinker has slipped, and this year is thrown at its lowest rate, just 14.1% of his pitches. As hitters have strove to hit more and more fly balls, the value of the sinker — force grounders — has faded.

Knowing this, the changes Rodriguez has made from last year to this are a bit odd, or at least against the grain.

Jefry Rodriguez pitch selection

Season Team FA% SI% CH% CU%
Season Team FA% SI% CH% CU%
2018 Nationals 43.7 % 21.3 % 13.0 % 22.1 %
2019 Indians 33.6 % 42.9 % 6.9 % 16.7 %
Total - - - 40.7 % 27.6 % 11.2 % 20.5 %

With the obvious caveat that he’s faced just 100 batters this year — less than half his total in 2018 — this is a stark departure from the pitcher he was in Washington. It’s consistent too — only one start this year has seen him throw less than 42.3% sinkers, his first start when he tossed just 29.7% of them.

As said before, this is a strange move, especially for a young pitcher with what should be killer velocity on his four-seam. According to FanGraphs, he averages 95.1 mph on his fastball, touching 97 with good location at times, and also packs above average spin rate on it, sitting in the 64th percentile according to Baseball Savant. Or, in more raw numbers, the 34th highest among starters. More impressive, and perhaps the driver for this switch, he owns the 14th highest spin rate on two-seamers, which is what Baseball Savant classifies his sinker. It’s one of those things you have to get used to, since they’re such similar pitches, but suffice to say he’s got a lot of life on both versions of his fastball.

If we stick with calling it a sinker though, it would be right to say that Rodriguez is some kind of sinkerballer. It’s a dying art, with only six qualified starters throwing it even 39 percent of the time. Last year that mark was surpassed by just five qualified starters. They had varying levels of success.

2018 Top Sinkerballers

# Name Team IP SI% (pi) vSI (pfx) ERA FIP GB% K% BABIP
# Name Team IP SI% (pi) vSI (pfx) ERA FIP GB% K% BABIP
1 Andrew Heaney Angels 180.0 56.2 % 91.9 4.15 3.99 41.2 % 24.0% .294
2 Jake Arrieta Phillies 172.2 53.8 % 93.0 3.96 4.26 51.6 % 19.1% .287
3 Kyle Hendricks Cubs 199.0 44.3 % 86.6 3.44 3.78 47.0 % 19.8% .281
4 Dallas Keuchel Astros 204.2 41.2 % 89.5 3.74 3.69 53.7 % 17.5% .300
5 Tanner Roark Nationals 180.0 40.0 % 92.3 4.25 4.20 40.8 % 19.3% .295

It’s a disparate group, including a pair of past Cy Young winners, a couple journeymen and whatever the hell kind of mutant Kyle Hendricks is. It’s hard to tell whether it paints a real picture of what to expect out of Rodriguez. But if there’s one through line of these guys, it’s that their success is overly influenced by luck. If they aren’t getting the right bounce they’re liable to get victimized. When it all clicks, it’s glorious, leading to sub-2.00 ERAs and 20-win seasons and hardware. Or just a long, solid career.

What Rodriguez has going for him, at least for the moment, is that velocity that separates him from those guys above. The only real comp there would be 2015 Jake Arrieta, when he won 22 game with a 1.77 ERA and that Cy Young. He was striking out hitters 27.1% of the time, a number Rodriguez would have to go kind of nuts to try to reach, currently sitting at just 15 percent. So it’s not a likely outcome, but if you’re optimistic about it and hope his other stuff develops a bit (and I do like his curve, it’s a solid change of pace) it’s a glance at the ceiling.

Rodriguez is proving that in baseball, like fashion and living with your parents until you’re 30, what was once old can be new again.