It’s an axiom of developing baseball players that the process is rarely linear. Some players start slow, others start fast. Nothing say seem to be changing with a player for months, and suddenly it all comes together and they level up. Then there are those players who get off to such good starts it’s remarkable enough to consider that a breakout may be in the offing. That is the case for Detroit Tigers RHP Elvin Rodriguez, who has yet to give up a run in his first two starts.
Rodriguez was originally signed in 2014 by the Angels before being the player to be named later in the Justin Upton trade. At the time of the deal, Rodriguez was still a few months shy of his 20th birthday. To that point he’d shown advanced control and a solid fastball-curve combination. With an easy delivery and low 90’s gas, there was ample reason to expect development both in his skills, and in his slender frame, with the hope being that as he filled out, the Tigers could have a nice power arm on their hands.
We last saw him in Lakeland at the High-A level in 2019, where things had plateaued. With 18 months to build himself up and work on his game, he was, like many of the younger prospects, one to keep a close eye as he returned to action now a more well built 23-year-old.
So far, the jump to the Double-A level is off to a fine start. It’s impressive enough to not give up any runs, but in his first two starts of the year Rodriguez has struck out 14 batters and surrendered only two hits and one walk over nine innings. To put it mildly, that is a noteworthy start to his 2021 season, and first crack at the Double-A level.
Last week, I tweeted out a hint that I’d be diving into Rodriguez for this weeks video room visit. It’s clear to see in this tweet what one of his main weapons is.
This visit to the video room is watching his second start against the Akron RubberDucks where he didn’t give up a hit or walk while striking out eight over five innings. It was a very fun game to watch.
As you can imagine the full arsenal was on display. So, let’s dive in.
Reports have this fastball sitting in the 92-94 area recent, which is not much more than his previous velocity numbers, but does show a little bump in average and consistency. It plays well off of his other pitches. Sequencing seems to be a huge theme for his entire arsenal, but particularly the success of his fastball. It is a solid pitch on its own though, with riding life and armside run. Frankly, a sustained velocity bump here would elevate his prospect status quite a bit in my opinion.
Here’s a look at the pitch as he hits his spot on the outside corner.
This really can be a good pitch. These next couple of pitches illustrate the potential well. They both put on display what the pitch can do when the batter is anticipating his curveball. The RubberDuck batters put a couple bad swings here and the armside run is on display.
The problem is that when not sequenced well, this is the pitch that gets barreled up more often than not. Of course, that’s true for most pitchers as the fastball is the primary offering, and typically the one that moves least. It was hard to get a really good example, but he gave up a few different instances of hard contact. This isn’t one of them, but it does show him missing over the middle of the plate. He’s had some good luck so far, but I wouldn’t recommend missing there often to better prospects.
Being able to live on the corners and sequence will be the biggest key with this pitch. If his velocity bump is legitimate, that will really help. In fact, it’s probably a necessity as Rodriguez is a bit of a short strider. So far, it seems to be. It’s entirely plausible that it is too, remember, Rodriguez is only 23 years old. Overall it’s not a bad pitch, I’d likely call it a fringe-average pitch that plays average based on the rest of his repertoire.
This pitch is Rodriguez’s best weapon, he will use it early and often. That was apparent against the second batter of the game where he put this pitch on display in some beautiful sequencing. It started by backdooring a lefty on 0-0.
He following it up by snapping off a tighter breaker with a little more tilt gloveside on 0-1.
He tried another curve that was fouled off before finally getting a strikeout on an elevated fastball. Frankly, it’s just a beautiful group of pitches from Rodriguez.
One thing a really like about this pitch is that he does manipulate the spin and break so well. Go watch that 0-0 backdoor breaking ball again. It’s got more loop to it. With that as a reference point, here’s an 0-2 backdoor curveball that is much closer to a straight 12-6 hammer. That is all done with how Rodriguez grips and releases the pitch, and he does a really good job with it.
Oh, and in case you were wondering this pitch was still sharp at the end of the outing.
This pitch is comfortably a plus curveball in my mind. He can lead with it, use it to get strikeouts, and even double up on it successfully. It’s got sharp break, but can be manipulated for more gradual break. It’s just a good pitch, there isn’t much question about it. Some tuning will still be required to tunnel it off the heater, but as Rodriguez uses his fastball at the top of the zone quite a bit, there’s still a good deal of deception in play.
This is the most volatile pitch in Rodriguez’s repertoire. It could be a very good pitch, and he’s threw some absolutely filthy changeups against Akron. The first one he threw showed he had good feel for the pitch on that day.
There were also times he struggles with the changeup. I’ll preface this by saying he does strikeout this batter with the most beautiful changeup he threw the whole outing, but first he missed badly on a 1-2 count.
To Rodriguez’s credit he wasn’t deterred. He shook the catcher off to get back to changeup and try again. Thank goodness he did because this was such a gorgeous pitch, complete with a K strut.
The command of the changeup is kind of spotty. When he threw it down though it was a really good pitch. This wasn’t a strike, but it showcases the movement he can get when the pitch is thrown well.
This pitch is not only the most volatile, but it could be the most important for Rodriguez’s future. Right now he’s comfortably a fastball/curveball pitcher with a clear third pitch in his changeup. That being said, I believe this could be a better pitch than his fastball. More consistency could make it an above average offering for me. Presently, it might be a 45 pitch, but there’s plenty of room for it to grow. He’ll need it, as he sometimes struggles to spot the fastball inside to lefties, and really needs that changeup to become a solid weapon.
This start showed the best of what Rodriguez has to offer. From a pure stuff standpoint, I think there is an average grade ceiling on the fastball, above average changeup, and plus curveball. He can be absolutely filthy when he’s on.
Here is where we run into the big remaining hurdle for Rodriguez’s development. I wasn’t in love with the command. For background, command and control are two different things. His control is good, he doesn’t walk a ton of people and he doesn’t often miss egregiously out of the zone. The ratio of strikes is, and always has been, quite good. I’m talking command, though.
He pitched well, but Rodriguez got deep in counts a lot during this game. Luckily for him they all broke the right way and his walk numbers stayed down. Getting in three-ball counts consistently though is a recipe for disaster and short outings. He also would miss over the middle a little too much. I talked about it a bit with his fastball, but missing over the big part of the plate will lend itself to plenty of barrels that will eventually lead to hits. The Akron batters just did a good job finding Seawolf defenders with their hard contact. The stuff just isn’t high-powered enough for Rodriguez to get away with a lot of mistakes.
Overall though Rodriguez is a candidate to jump up Tigers organizational rankings. The newly found velocity, should it stick and hopefully tip a bit higher into the summer months, is a big reason why. The pitchability, sequencing, and pure stuff is what will do it for me.
Obviously he’s going to eventually give up runs, but I don’t think his performance early in 2021 is fluke. I think Rodriguez is much better than where he left off in 2019. Not a bad get for the Tigers as a player to be named later. In the process, it illustrates why trying to pluck an unheralded teenager with projection is generally a good idea in any trade. It’s hard to steal a team’s more advanced prospects as they become known commodities, but younger players a team hasn’t invested much in yet? That’s typically where a bargain can be acquired.