K-Rod, others convince Rondon it’s time for change

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Carlos Guillen, the former Tiger and current general manager of Team Venezuela, was watching his players going through their paces Saturday on the back fields at Tigertown when the conversation turned to Bruce Rondon, who may be his closer in the WBC.

“He needs to use his change-up,” Guillen said. “It’s the toughest pitch to hit in the game. You got a good change-up, you pitch a long time. Look at Johan Santana, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Rodriguez.

“A change-up would be a good pitch for Rondon.”

Rondon is a step ahead of him. At the behest of Rodriguez, Rondon is getting serious about his change-up this year.

“Yeah, I practice it a little more,” he said in improving English. “Frankie talked to me about it, about throwing more change-ups. It’s good for me.”

He said the pitch was still a work in progress, but he seems committed to using it more this season, particularly against left-handed hitters.

“He’s always had a change-up,” Rodriguez said. “He’s just never used it; never tried to use it. And he’s got a good one.”

After a rocky 2015 season both on and off the field, Rondon reclaimed his spot at the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen last year. Throwing his upper-90s fastball and knee-buckling slider, he was 5-2 with a 2.97 ERA and 0.963 WHIP.

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He threw exactly 18 change-ups last season, according to Brooks Baseball, all to left-handed hitters, who hit .400 off the pitch. His other pitches worked much better against lefties, who all told hit just .159 against him.

But Rodriguez, as he’s learned to do in his own career, told Rondon to be proactive and take his game to another level. Now that he’s reestablished himself, and because his slider can be so devastating to right-handers, teams are going to throw as many lefties at him as they can.

“Yeah, they are going to bring lefties against him,” Rodriguez said. “They’re not going to bring righties because he throws hard and he’s got that slider that goes away from righties. Late in games they are going to bring the lefties and hope he backs up that slider.”

A backed-up slider from a right-hander to a left-handed hitter usually gets hit hard.

“He throws 100 mph,” Rodriguez said. “If his change-up is 91, that’s still 9 mph difference, which is enough to get guys out front.”

Rondon threw live batting practice on Sunday and after his last pitch, the coaches behind the backstop hollered and clapped their hands in appreciation. Although he’s spent a lot of time working on the change-up, it was nice to see him air it out.

“I feel real good,” Rondon said. “For the first time out, it felt real good.”

Rondon was asked if he felt like he has finally, after a couple years lost to injury and ill temperament, established himself both in the league and in the organization.

“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “From the end of last year on, I don’t change anything. Just keep working and doing the same things I was doing last year.”

It’s a stark contrast between the sullen, often isolated and clearly unhappy pitcher who was sent home the Tigers before the end of the 2015 season and the jovial, engaging and confident young man of today.

Credit goes to the Tigers’ organization for its patience and credit goes to Rondon for his work and his will to be both a successful player and a good teammate. But Rondon himself was quick to extend credit to Rodriguez for his transformation.

“I learned a lot from him,” Rondon said. “I give him thanks for staying on top of me day in and day out, and giving me advice every day. I give him thanks for that.”