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108 Stitches Newsletter with Alex Speier

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
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The performances are now becoming familiar. For Eduardo Rodriguez, success is no longer a novelty rather than an expectation.

At 24, Rodriguez has been one of the most overpowering starters in the American League. Beyond his solid 3.10 ERA, his 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings rank eighth in the AL, his 27.8 percent strikeout rate is fifth, and opponents are hitting just .202 against him, the sixth-lowest mark in the circuit. He is combining the ability to get swings-and-misses with bad contact when opponents do put the ball in play.

The performance has the markers of a jump from back-of-the-rotation uncertainty (Rodriguez was initially competing with Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright in a three-for-two battle for Red Sox rotation spots this spring) to middle or even front-of-the-rotation dependability. The fact that Rodriguez is coming into his own as a power lefty at age 24 has a vaguely familiar ring to some members of the Red Sox who remember the last time they witnessed this sort of performance.

In 2008, Jon Lester – in his first full, healthy big league season – shed his reputation for inefficiency and mound uncertainty, breaking through with a clear plan of attack that vaulted him to front-of-the-rotation status. A pitcher who had nibbled in 2006 and 2007 became the aggressor in 2008, a year in which he went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 210 innings, the start of his 10-year (and counting) run as a front-of-the-rotation staple.

His coming of age happened as a 24-year-old in his third major league season – the same age and career stage at which Rodriguez now finds himself.

“The light came on in 2008 and [Lester has] been on a pretty good roll,” said Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel. “That’s pretty high praise [to compare Rodriguez to the 24-year-old Lester] but I tell you what, his stuff is very, very good, very favorable.”

Like Lester, Rodriguez can make righties tremendously uncomfortable by working with mid-90s velocity on the inside corner. Lester complemented that foundation with a lethal cutter and a solid curveball.

Rodriguez, by contrast, features what Treuel described as a “wipeout changeup” that dives down to his arm side along with a slider that he’s now using to steal strikes to that same side of the plate. Those pitches force righties to respect the outer half of the plate – permitting Rodriguez to lock them up with his four-seam fastballs that whistle to the inner edge.

The result? Rodriguez has held righties to a .182 average while striking them out at a 29 percent rate.

“You particularly watch his attack plan on righthanded hitters,” observed manager John Farell, who was Lester’s big league pitching coach during his coming-of-age 2008 season. “To me, it’s the leading of the breaking ball backdoor to slow them down, get them looking out there, and then it starts to open a lot of things up. And I think he and [Christian Vazquez] have evolved almost hand in hand with their execution of a gameplan.”

That ability to recognize strengths and develop a gameplan represents another similarity between what Rodriguez is now doing and how Lester learned to attack nine years ago.

Tale of the youthful tape Jon Lester and Eduardo Rodriguez through 50 career big league games
Category Jon Lester (2006-08) Eduardo Rodriguez (2015-17)
Record 21-5 16-14
ERA 3.90 4.05
Innings 290 2/3 278
K/9 6.5 8.2
BB/9 3.7 3.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

“In general, around 24, I think guys get a true understanding of how much work is required physically and mentally. I think through the cycle of a couple of times, they get the experience of what a full year is. Then they get to experience the challenges, the ups and downs, with in a year,” said Farrell. “I think it’s just enough experience to go through the cycle and to truly understand how much is involved. There’s a number of things that bubble to the surface and it’s, ‘OK, we’ve cast our net around it and finally know what it is.’”

With that understanding, the raw ability that made young pitchers into top prospects can take shape into performance.

Still, it would be premature to anoint Rodriguez as a “next Lester.” He’s a different pitcher, and Lester eventually opened up the plate more completely with a repertoire that included not just a two- and four-seam fastball along with his fantastic cutter but also a swing-and-miss curveball and an effective changeup. Rodriguez doesn’t have that broad an array of pitches – and he may never develop such a diverse mix. That said, Rodriguez has developed an excellent baseline that is allowing him to establish himself.

“When you throw 95 as a lefthander, you don’t really see that,” said Farrell. “In addition, with two other pitches with one as a wipeout, that’s a pretty good place to start.”

As Rodriguez prepares for his ninth start of 2017 against the Mariners on Friday, that combination gives every impression of a pitcher who is amidst a coming-of-age, applying some of the lessons he’s gained from both his own experience and those of his more prominent teammates.

“You can say what you want about [Josh] Beckett but Beckett was a good teammate and a really good influence on Lester, and you can say what you want about [Curt] Schilling but he was pretty darn good in the same way. Now you’ve got [Chris] Sale and [David] Price and [Rick] Porcello, so three guys who are going to influence [Rodriguez] pretty well,” said Treuel. “Hopefully in eight to 10 years, E-Rod is doing that to one of our young kids – or maybe in five years or four years or three years, he’s doing that for Jason Groome.”

Craig Edwards of Fangraphs has an excellent look at adjustments in Rodriguez’s pitch mix that have allowed him to achieve liftoff this year.

To the links!

ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Pomeranz brought the Red Sox to their lowest moment of the season last Saturday, his exit after four innings not only extending the Sox’ losing streak to a season-long three games but his dugout spat with Farrell setting off alarms of potential crisis in the organization. Just five days later, as Peter Abraham writes, Pomeranz matched a career-high with 11 strikeouts before walking off the mound to handshakes after his best outing of the season extended the Sox’ winning streak to four games, matching a season-high, in a 6-2 victory over the Rangers.

Here’s the box score.

Pomeranz wasn’t alone in overpowering the Rangers. Thanks to a blown ninth-inning call by umpires on the field and replay officials off of it, closer Craig Kimbrel matched a record by striking out four batters in the ninth inning, with the final punchout – against Mike Napoli – representing the 20th of the game by Sox pitchers, matching a record for a nine-inning game. I examined the blown call, the historic feats – and the otherworldly performance of Kimbrel.

Chad Thornburg of MLB.com offered further context for what a 20-strikeout game represents.

FOR BOGAERTS, SOMETHING OLD AND SOMETHING NEW: Xander Bogaerts couldn’t help it.

When, after 192 plate appearances spanning 239 days, Bogaerts finally ended his home run drought with a rocket that just cleared the Green Monster, he couldn’t suppress a grin that suggested both delight and relief while rounding the bases. For the shortstop, it was a moment worth celebrating.

Other members of the Red Sox didn’t share that conclusion. As Bogaerts reached his dugout, indifference prevailed, leaving him to sprint past teammates, arms raised to receive the high-fives that did not come.

The ruse didn’t last. After Bogaerts made it to the far end of the dugout, other members of the Red Sox descended upon him with congratulations for his first longball of 2017 – and excitement for the prospect that it will not be his last.

Yet in some ways, Bogaerts’ other tour of the bases did more to underscore why he’s been one of the top shortstops in baseball thus far this year. With two outs in the first inning, he singled, stole second, and scored on a single. He’s been elite both in hitting for average (.335, 3rd in the AL) and as a baserunner. He’s taken the extra base on a hit (going first to third or second to home on a single, first to home on a double) nine times, tied for third most in the majors. Bogaerts is now 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts; only Lorenzo Cain (12-for-12) has more steals without being caught this year.

“I want to go. I want to go. I want to go,” said Bogaerts, who felt compelled to offer further clarification. “I like going.”

PEDROIA PROTECTION: Dustin Pedroia left Thursday’s game early due to soreness in his left knee – the same one that required offseason surgery and that subsequently required time off after Manny Machado slid into it in April.

“It was a little sore,” said Pedroia. “Obviously it was wet. Conditions weren’t ideal. I wasn’t moving around very well. John saw that and just came up and said, ‘I’m taking it out of your hands. Get some treatment and try to get better. … Hopefully I feel better and will be fine.”

READY OR NOT, HERE HE COMES: Price has not pitched well in his two rehab starts, but he’s emerged from his two outings with Triple A Pawtucket feeling healthy after building his workload to 89 pitches while holding 93-95 miles per hour velocity. As such, the Red Sox and Price decided he’ll make his return to the big leagues Monday against the White Sox, as Abraham writes.

Chad Jennings of the Boston Herald outlines why it makes sense for Price to return to the rotation now.

Scott Lauber of ESPN.com writes that Price and the Red Sox have plenty of incentives to get him back to the mound, and back to pitching to his full potential, as soon as possible.

Sale told Rob Bradford of WEEI.com that, while Price’s actions have been questioned, he’s earned nothing but respect from his teammates.

JOHNSON GETS ANOTHER SHOT: On Saturday, lefthander Brian Johnson will get his third career big league start – and the first in which he already has a win to his credit, thanks to his five-inning, four-run effort against the Blue Jays in April.

“Confidence is the biggest thing,” Johnson said of the difference with a win in his pocket. “You get that feeling that you belong. You’re not an outcast. That’s the biggest thing for me.”

BENCH BATS: The arrival of Sam Travis in the big leagues gives Farrell something of a bench armory, writes Abraham.

FARRELL MAKES HIS MARK: Farrell launched a ticket program for lymphoma patients, a project in which the manager hopes to help others cope with the same disease for which he underwent treatment in 2015. Ian Browne of MLB.com explores Farrell’s program.

CLOCK WATCHING: It’s no accident that all the pitchers who come through the Rays organization work at glacial paces. There is a measurable benefit to such an approach in the form of increased velocity, Rob Arthur writes in a fascinating article for FiveThirtyEight.com.

If such a conclusion is accurate, it may provide yet another mark in the “pros” column for a pitch clock. Consider:

1. A slower pace slows the game down (self-evident).

2. A slower pace creates more velocity – which leads to more swings-and-misses.

3. More swings and misses mean deeper (more time-consuming) counts and less action with the ball in play.

Aesthetically, the experience of the pitch clock in the upper levels of the minors is almost indiscernible. At the major league level, changes borne by a time limit between pitches could improve rather than detract from the overall aesthetic of a game that is now moving too slowly for the tastes of many.

Paul Swydan of Fangraphs writes that this year’s Red Sox and Rays are playing games that average 3 hours, 19 minutes – earning them the distinction of being “the slowest teams in baseball history.”

MINOR DETAILS: As a player, Keith Foulke described baseball as boring. Five years removed from his playing career, however, the former Red Sox closer has discovered a love of coaching. My minor league notebook details Foulke’s growing role in the Red Sox organization at a time when the team is altering how it develops bullpen arms.

In High A Salem, Michael Chavis went 4-for-7 with his 11th homer of the year and a double. His 11 homers – in just 37 games – are the most by any Salem player since Sean Coyle hit 14 in 2013. (Rafael Devers led the affiliate with 11 homers in 128 games last year.) Chavis ranks sixth in the minors in average (.360), seventh in OBP (.440), and second in slugging (.712). First baseman Josh Ockimey went 2-for-5 with a double, two walks, and two strikeouts. The 21-year-old is hitting .313/.427/.490, and his 30 walks are tied for the sixth most in the majors.

Single A Greenville outfielder Lorenzo Cedrola, 19, went 1-for-3 with a steal. He’s hitting .277/.319/.408 with seven steals, showing a combination of skills – contact ability, speed, and potentially above-average to plus outfield defense – that suggest big league potential.

Both Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket were rained out.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.

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