TPR Reader Appreciation Day: Sean Rodriguez’s Failure | The Process Report

TPR Reader Appreciation Day: Sean Rodriguez’s Failure

Almost a year after we turned out the lights, Tommy and I are bringing TPR back for a day. During the All-Star Break we’ll produce content just like old times before leaving the site dormant again. We’re doing this as a token of our apprecation for your support, then and now.

In the interim, we wanted to remind everyone of what the site is all about. Consider the following, a reflection and analysis of the Sean Rodriguez-as-everyday-shortstop era, a teaser for what’s soon to come.

On May 20, Sean Rodriguez went one-for-four with a double. The performance raised Rodriguez’s seasonal numbers to .248/.304/.376. A season prior, major-league shortstops had batted an aggregate .263/.317/.380. As far as serviceable starting shortstops go, Rodriguez looked the part. He had the average bat, fine defense, and good baserunning. On that night, Rodriguez’s production suggested he had put it all together. Over the next four weeks, he smashed the idea and any optimism surrounding him. From May 21 until June 21, Rodriguez accumulated 85 plate appearances; he struck out one more time than he reached base. Rodriguez’s performance formed a .163/.193/.275 slash line and an otherwise miserable impression on those watching.

It was happening again. For the second consecutive season, the Rays watched a young, promising shortstop attempting to take the everyday job collapse. Rodriguez’s predecessor, Reid Brignac, had obvious flaws. He lacked plate discipline and would swing at pitches high and low, in and out, fast and slow with carelessness reserved for a villain in a slasher flick. The hope was always that Brignac’s occasional power and good defense would make up for his errors in judgment. By July, those hopes, like Brignac, had disappeared. Brignac would return from the minors soon thereafter, and even started a playoff game, but it became clear that his days as the shortstop of the future were over.

So began Rodriguez’s try at harnessing the job. By comparison to Brignac, Rodriguez looked like a sure upgrade. Entering the 2012 season, Rodriguez had come to the plate 814 times for the Rays, with a career .236/.316/.376 slash line and a 95 adjusted-OPS. In other words, Rodriguez had hit like a league-average hitter while mostly playing second base. Even Rodriguez’s pitfalls seemed excusable. His problems with right-handed pitchers were not rare, and his time as a shortstop in the minors made up for his inexperience at the position in the big leagues.

Beyond being a fresh face, there were plenty of other reasons to like Rodriguez. He had proven to be a skilled, reliable utility player on multiple playoff squads. His excellence against southpaws provided optimism that he could—would—improve against righties. Away from the plate, Rodriguez’s stylish defense bordered on hot-dogging, drawing eyes thanks to his smooth yet precise actions. Rodriguez charmed the eye and the defensive metrics alike. He looked like a natural on the basepaths as well.

It should come as no surprise that Rodriguez has baseball in his family. Father Johnny manages in the Cardinals system and formerly served as a hitting coach, scout, and manager across various affiliates and levels of organized ball. Bloodlines in baseball, like politics, can sometimes make all of the difference. Sure enough, Rodriguez received high marks for his makeup and work ethic throughout the minors, and effused a toughness about him. This was never more on display than during the 2011 postseason when Rodriguez barreled into Rangers catcher Mike Napoli without hesitation.

Armed with tremendous physical skills, a baseball-centered upbringing, and desire, Rodriguez seems like a player destined to succeed. So why then is he failing?

The answer may seem obvious. By playing Rodriguez more often, the Rays inadvertently exposed him to more right-handed pitchers, thus lowering his overall line. But the numbers do not support this explanation. Rodriguez is facing a right-handed pitcher 65 percent of the time this season, after facing righties 63 percent of the time his first two seasons with the club. That rate compares favorably to fellow right-handed starters B.J. Upton (65 percent in 2012) and Evan Longoria (68 percent). What if then, the answer is that Rodriguez has simply gotten worse against same-handed pitchers? Once again, the theory is bunk. Rodriguez’s .203/.222/.353 slash line equates to a .574 OPS, or a seven-point improvement over his 2011 numbers.

It is not that Rodriguez is facing more right-handers, or performing worse against them. Rodriguez’s decline has little at all to do with right-handers. Instead, the glitch in the machine is that his greatest strength, his ability to hit left-handers, has betrayed him. Rodriguez is still walking at a comparable amount to his 2011 numbers, and is striking out less. His batting average on balls in play is down, but not egregiously so. The reason for Rodriguez’s OPS being to .627 (from .864) is an absence of power.

Last season, 45 percent of Rodriguez’s hits against lefties went for extra bases; that rate is down to 18 percent this season. The difference sabotages otherwise solid numbers. If Rodriguez had the same Isolated Power that he did last season this season, his OPS against lefties would shoot up to .786 and his overall OPS would be close to .650. That is an increase of more than 50 points—an amount that, after factoring in the ballpark and his defense and baserunning, makes him a respectable option.

Finding the problem proves easier than finding the solution. PITCHf/x data bears out no significant difference in how southpaws are attacking Rodriguez. What is clear is that Rodriguez’s power production in 2011 against lefties is likely a high water mark. Similarly, his putrid output against lefties this season represents the low tide. The normal tide almost certainly lies somewhere in between.

It is possible that Rodriguez’s run as an everyday shortstop is over. If so, it could mean that Rodriguez’s opportunity to become an everyday player for the Rays has passed, too. Fans and the team are no doubt frustrated and disappointed with the outcome, but none more so than the player is. Rodriguez has proven that he can help the Rays win ballgames. Perhaps this starting shortstop business was over his head. Or, perhaps, Rodriguez can gather himself and grab hold of another opportunity. Should that occur, it will be precipitated by Rodriguez’s return to form against southpaws.

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