Relievers have been all the rage this offseason, and while the main pieces are off the board (Robertson, Miller, etc.) there are still some interesting players left in free agency, the most intriguing of whom is Francisco Rodriguez. The reputation of the major league record holder for saves in a single season has taken a bit of a hit since his glory days, but his arm is just fine.
Rodriguez left Anaheim after the 2008 season for the Mets, and was unfortunately not able to repeat his incredible performances from the previous seasons. While he wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t good enough, especially for the money he was being paid ($37 million for 3 years). Ever since then, according to various important metrics, Rodriguez has been and still is an above-average reliever. But whether it’s due to his less-than-perfect personal history, or that his home team is a small-market club, he hasn’t seen much of the spotlight recently. So now with only one week left in January, Rodriguez is without a team; yet he could be the final fine-tuning move for a contending team that needs a reliever for high leverage situations.
While he’s not striking out people at the rate he used to, 9.66 is still an above average figure. Coupled with a low BB/9 rate of 2.38, K-Rod clearly can still be a late inning weapon for a contender. He’s had consistently above-average values in ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-, as well as SIERA. While his FIP- was bloated in 2014, that can be explained by his abnormally high HR/9 last season. Since FIP relies heavily on things that a defense cannot control, surrendering that many home runs would naturally lead to a higher value. If his other statistics were inflated rather than just his FIP-, it might be cause for greater concern, but his other peripherals are still above average.
Looking deeper into the treasure trove of statistics that are at our disposal reveals another reason for K-rod to be entrusted with high leverage situations. The stat in question is RE24, or as Dave Cameron likes to call it, Cobra. FanGraphs tells us that +15 is excellent and -15 is awful, with 0 being average. In both 2013 and 2014, Rodriguez put up strong numbers and ranked in the top third of all relievers in RE24.
While RE24 is inherently non-predictive, 6 years worth of K-Rod’s performance data is enough to lead to a reasonable assumption that he’ll remain above average heading into next season. RE24 is a fantastic tool for relievers because it has the ability to measure the "importance" of the situation. More than any other position in baseball, relievers often have to enter the game in extremely perilous situations, and RE24 factors in that concept. A great example is the scenario FanGraphs uses about a bases loaded, nobody out situation. A pitcher coming into that situation is expected to allow 2.282 runs; thus, "stranding the runners is worth 2.282 RE24". With this statistic, pitchers are rewarded, as well as punished, based off the 24 base out states.
With pitchers and catchers reporting soon, there are still some teams out there that could use a weapon like K-Rod. Billy Beane is always a candidate to pick up a reliever, the White Sox could add to their new relief core, and the Nationals could use a replacement for Tyler Clippard. However, for several reasons, the best fit for the reliever seems to be the Chicago Cubs.
The most obvious reason is that Wrigley field is much less HR-happy than K-Rod's most recent home of Miller Park. In 2014, Miller had a HR Park Factor of 1.142, while Wrigley Field had a below average factor of .943. Although these park factors change on a season-to-season basis, Wrigley has had a lower HR factor since 2009.
Rodriguez’s love of the strike zone’s lower edge, where he threw 46.4% of his pitches (2014), is another reason for why the Cubs are a perfect fit. Since 2010, Jonathan Lucroy, who has ranked as a top five pitch framer, has been Rodriguez’s primary catcher.
Having a catcher that is adept in framing is incredibly valuable, as it allows a pitcher who lives on the edge to steal strikes and stretch the zone. What makes Chicago such a great landing spot for Rodriguez is that the Cubs understand this, and acquired Miguel Montero and David Ross to handle the staff. Both are incredible pitch framers, and likely form the best catcher framing tandem in baseball. This makes Rodriguez especially valuable to the Cubs.
Rodriguez surely has little bargaining power this late in the offseason and could be had for a relatively low cost. In 2014, he earned $3.25 million, but wasn’t exactly a star in the various WAR departments (fWAR of -0.6, bWAR of 1.4, and a WARP of 0.1), which will likely hurt in the contract negotiations. The Cubs have money to spend, and with their franchise in "win-now" mode, picking up Rodriguez could generate very big upside with very little risk.
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Matt Goldman is a Contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheoOriginalBull.