K-Rod's change-up creates stress-free saves

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Francisco Rodriguez works in the ninth inning against the Royals on July 15.

Detroit – What Francisco Rodriguez is doing this year, pitching all these relatively stress-free ninth innings, is a phenomenon new and not much seen in recent seasons of Tigers baseball.

But it’s not new to Rodriguez. So he doesn’t understand where a question like — Are you even a little surprised at how consistent you’ve been this season? — comes from.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, my numbers are out there,” he said Sunday, after he pitched a scoreless ninth and got the win in the Tigers 4-2 victory over the Royals. “I’ve been consistent every year.”

You don’t have to look past the fact that he is the active saves leader, with 412 career saves after Monday's 1-0 victory over the Twins and just 67 blown saves (an 86 percent save percentage) to verify what he said. But you should.

The most blown saves he’s had in any season, and he’s been his team’s primary closer since 2004, is seven. Since 2013, he has 93 percent save percentage, best among active closers – 117 saves in 126 changes. Just nine blown saves in three and a half seasons.

“After 15 years in the big leagues and you are still able to do things you were able to do when you first came up, it’s just amazing to see somebody like that,” said Tigers coach Omar Vizquel. “He’s mastered all his pitches now. Every time he takes the mound it’s like he’s throwing a batting practice – he doesn’t seem to sweat. He’s so relaxed.”

Vizquel faced Rodriguez earlier in his career, when his fastball was clocking in the mid- to upper-90s. In recent years, his fastball barely hits 90. And yet, with one of the best change-ups in the game, he continues to dominate hitters.

“I actually was facing him when he was adding his change-up to his repertoire,” Vizquel said. “Before he was fastball-curveball, and his curve was amazing – a 12-to-6 break, very sharp. Then he added that change-up to that and it made him a complete and awesome pitcher.”

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According to Brooks Baseball, Rodriguez has thrown the change-up 42 percent of the time this season and opponents are hitting .197 against it. Most hitters go up looking for the change-up and they still can’t hit it.

“I know from facing him, our scouting reports were to sit change-up,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “You’re going to get it, guaranteed, at least one time an at-bat, and chances are you will see it two or three times. Sit change-up and make sure you get it up.

“So now catching him, I am sure it’s the same scouting report, so we try to work off of that.”

Scouting reports don’t really matter to Rodriguez, though. He’s still going to throw a majority of change-ups.

“That’s his mental focus, his mental strength,” Saltalamacchia said. “He steps into those pressure spots and he just mentally throws everything out the door and says, ‘This is my strength. This is what I’m coming at you with. If you beat me, you beat me. If not, then that’s what I want.’”

Vizquel sees it over and over. Veteran hitters clearly sitting on a change-up, getting the change-up, missing the change-up. He did the same thing against Trevor Hoffman, another dominant change-up throwing closer.

“I faced Hoffman late in his career when he was throwing all change-ups,” Vizquel said. “I said I was going to hit the change-up, I was going to wait for the change-up. And I still ended up in front of it, hitting ground balls to first or second base.

“The ball just dies at the end. You think you are going to hit it right on the nose and then all of a sudden – whoosh – it just falls.”

There haven’t been many modern day closers who can survive on one pitch, especially if that one pitch isn’t an upper-90s or triple-digit heater.

“There are very few pitchers that have the ability to throw a pitch everyone knows is coming and be successful over the course of a large number of games,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Hoffman was one. Mariano Rivera (cutter) was another. And now K-Rod. He’s been able to re-invent himself with the change-up.”

Rodriguez has 26 saves in 28 chances this season. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last nine outings.

“Two things I’ve been impressed with,” Ausmus said. “Forget the stuff, forget the change-up. He’s an extremely smart pitcher, an extremely smart baseball player. And he is very confident. It’s tough to teach those two things.”

So, back to the original question. Are you even a little surprised that you have remained so consistent for so long.

“Does it surprise me?” Rodriguez said. “No. I expect more than what I’ve given. I expect more.”