After striking quickly on both R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, the Braves continued their offseason feast on Thanksgiving morning by agreeing to a 2-year, $11. 5 million-dollar deal with super utility man Sean Rodriguez.
At first glance, this deal doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Rodriguez is a part-time player, and part-time players usually don’t break the bank in free agency. What’s interesting is that Rodriguez isn’t your ordinary part time player, and that might quickly make this deal an real bargain for the Braves.
To understand what Rodriguez is, we must understand what he was. Prior to 2016, he posted no higher than a .716 OPS in parts of eight seasons for the Angels, Rays, and Pirates. In those eight seasons, Rodriguez only broke 400 plate appearances one time, and only reached double-digit home runs once with 12. For players like Rodriguez to survive in the majors, they must adapt. If they become too one-dimensional, their days on big league rosters are numbered. Through his athleticism, Rodriguez was able to survive by producing value with his glove. As a result, the 2016 version of Sean Rodriguez was a multi-positional asset that could plug just about any hole in the Pirates lineup.
On the offensive side, Rodriguez made several adjustments from 2015 to 2016. The first picture is Rodriguez in 2015. You can see his foot is relatively low to the ground, and he doesn’t generate much hip movement that would help him drive the ball. With that low level of torque, it’s no surprise that Rodriguez was never considered much of a power threat.
In 2016, we see big changes. Reminiscent of the leg kicks we see from Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, Rodriguez started using his lower-half to generate bat speed and power. In 2008, it was Bautista who re-invented his swing after flaming out as an infielder with the Pirates. Rodriguez has now seemingly flipped the script through the same leg-kick that turned Bautista into an all-star.
Before these adjustments were made, few were expecting Rodriguez to overshadow his defensive ability with his bat. But in 2016, he exploded offensively, putting up an .859 OPS in 342 plate appearances over 140 games played. Because of the low number of plate appearances for that level of production, you would think that Rodriguez is a perfect example of a lefty-mashing platoon hitter, but that’s not entirely true. Of his 342 plate appearances, only 94 came against left handed pitching. When given his opportunities against southpaws, he did his damage with a .286/.415/.519 triple slash to go along with four home runs, four doubles, and a triple. Still, only 94 plate appearances shows that the Pirates didn’t think was only deployable against lefties.
In his other 248 plate appearances, Rodriguez still put up nice numbers. With a .265/.324/.507 triple slash to go along with a healthy 14 home runs, 12 doubles, and a 120 wRC+, he continued to show that he had made tangible changes to his approach. Of all first basemen with at least 300 plate appearances, Rodriguez finished 11th in wRC+. If you move him over to shortstop, he would’ve finished in the top 5.
Obviously, we don’t know how he would have performed with another 250 plate appearances in 2016. But, we can confidently believe that his lack of an everyday spot in the lineup was not his fault. In a crowded Pittsburg infield that included Jung-Ho Kang, Josh Harrison, David Freese, Jordy Mercer, John Jaso, and then-top prospect Josh Bell all competing for playing time at just four positions, Rodriguez wasn’t given the plate appearances his performance warranted. Looking forward for the Pirates, Rodriguez was a luxury that they ended up deeming not worth the $5-7 million per year offers he was looking at receiving on the open market. For the Braves, however, veteran position players are hard to spot on their roster that’s been stripped down to the bone over the last two years. His value increases on that team with an opportunity to amass over 500 plate appearances while providing good defense at multiple positions.
With his high level of performance and positional flexibility, it’s hard to imagine that the $5.5 million in annual average value he received isn’t a bargain for the type of production he’s capable of at multiple positions. Like pitch framing, there isn’t a perfect way to account for positional flexibility, how it affects a player’s total value to his team, and how it translates into dollars. Everyone knew that Ben Zobrist’s value increased due to his ability to play multiple positions well, but there wasn’t an exact percentage increase that one could project to his free agent earnings.
Even if you take away his ability to play all four infield positions along with some outfield thrown in, Rodriguez’s offensive production could’ve warranted a bigger payday than he received. Judging off of WAR, Rodriguez posted a 1.9 fWAR and a 1.8 bWAR in 2016. Considering that accumulated in just 342 plate appearances, it’s an impressive value. It’s not unreasonable to think that Rodriguez could’ve posted a 3-win season over 600 PAs, especially given that he isn’t strictly a platoon player.
Moving forward to 2017, the Braves secured someone they could plug in at second base and immediately see top-level production. Through the adjustments he made in his swing, Rodriguez could be considered a 20 home run threat for at least 2017. If he continues to provide the above-average defense he’s known for, Rodriguez could provide the type of value that will make him the free agent bargain of the offseason.