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If Richard Rodriguez is going to rely on two pitches, it’s a good thing they move so well

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates found a gem in Richard Rodriguez, even if he “only” has two pitches.

The Pittsburgh Pirates dug deep last winter, baring the cold expanse of an unusually slow-developing off-season market, all the while hoping to come back to the homestead with some interesting buy-low candidates in tow. Hell, if luck was on the club’s side, perhaps they could find some depth. The club found that and more in Richard Rodriguez, signed off of the proverbial scrap heap back in December.

Rodriguez has defied naysayers by maintaining a baseline level of productivity that has turned him into a relied-upon middle to high leverage reliever. That baseline level has allowed him to sidestep a couple of less-than-sterling months (July and August were a bit unkind) and stick in the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen.

And, he’s doing it with two pitches. That’s not anything unheard of for a relief arm, of course. In fact, it is down right common. But the best relievers - the steadiest relievers - maintain effectiveness on those pitches. Rodriguez has done that, and here’s how:

A Sturdy Four Seamer

At first blush, Rodriguez’s four-seamer is utterly unremarkable. It averages 92.9 mph, so it’s not going to blow anyone away.

If we have not learned by now that velocity isn’t everything, perhaps Rodriguez could serve as the poster boy for that movement. Rodriguez clearly gets the most out of his 92.9 MPH four-seamer, which carries a 13.9 percent whiff rate, well over the league mark for relievers of 4.4 percent.

Rodriguez’s four-seamer carries two characteristics that help it to “play up.” The spin rate on the 28 year old veteran’s heat clocks at 2376 rpm as of this writing, 100+ rpm higher than the current MLB-wide 2262 rpm mark.

This is why this is important. A higher spin rate allows for late life, which can truly open up all areas of a strike zone for a pitcher.

Here, this four-seam fastball from late July carried a 2352 spin rate. Here, that spin allowed Rodriguez to hit his spot up in the zone, and the last bit of late movement caused the hitter — who had good pitch recognition as this was certain an “offerable” pitch — to pop up meekly (69.7 mph exit velocity).

Let’s look at this same pitch a different way:

Here i have circled the “reaction point” on the pitch. Reaction points are just what they would appear to be - points in the cycle of a pitch in which a hitter must react - will he swing or take?

The reaction point coupled with the pitch’s trajectory suggests to the hitter that the pitch will continue to move at the rate that the hitter’s eye is expecting. However, the higher spin on Rodriguez’s fastball delays this movement, thus causing a humbled swing.

This is but one pitch of course, but Rodriguez’s data on the four-seam overall broaden the picture:

Here we have Statcast data helping us to compare Rodriguez’s four-seam movement to the mlb-wide averages. Right away, we see the biggest differentiation in Rodriguez’s horizontal break, which is five points higher. The ability to move the fastball around the zone while coaxing hitters into lesser results than their pitch recognition abilities suggest helps Rodriguez maximize every ounce of what his four-seam fastball can bring. It also helps greatly to set up his other pitch:

An Even Sturdier Slider

Not to be outdone, Richard Rodriguez carries a slider that is not quite wipeout-quality, but not without its own merits.

Note: Once again, pitch recognition systems differ. Statcast sees it as a slider, Brooks Baseball sees it as a curveball...yadda yadda yadda, we’ll call it a slider here.

On second thought, maybe we should call it a curveball, as there is a tremendous amount of vertical break here. Rodriguez’s 75 percent range of sliders thrown nearly starts at a higher degree of movement than the 75 percent range seen from all MLB pitchers. That is awfully impressive, and it becomes scary when one sees that Rodriguez knows how to use this movement.

We’ll show you this pitch first. A gutsy 2-2 slider curve with the bases loaded to end an inning:

If you look at that particular pitch in a vaccum, nothing about it jumps up and demands your attention. It was a sweeping curveball to a left-handed hitter. It could have been dangerous, especially against a capable hitter like Travis Shaw.

However, the pitches before the punch out tell the story:

Here we have the pitches numbers in the sequence. Rodriguez starts him off with a slider for strike one. Then, Shaw takes pitch two for a ball. Which is actually unusual, as Rodriguez carries a 16.87 percent whiff rate on the pitch and carries the highest “chase rate” (percentage of pitches outside of the zone that are chased at) of any Pittsburgh Pirates reliever (tied with Kyle Crick at 29.7 percent). So, hat tip to Shaw there.

Rodriguez comes back with a four-seam fastball high and up. Some would see this as a wasted pitch, but if you’ve been following the recent trends in MLB you know better. Come back down with a four-seam way resulted in a 2-2 count, but Rodriguez has Shaw now. The fifth pitch changes Shaw’s eye level to a drastic degree, and results in a swinging strike to end the inning.

Rodriguez carries a certain duality to him. He did not break into the majors until he was 28 years old, yet he is still considered to be “young” in terms of mileage. His fastball seems ordinary on the surface but is anything but. His slider curve seems hittable but has fantastic movement.

In many ways, those traits tie in nicely with his two-pitch approach. As long as those pitches continue to move the way they are, the Pittsburgh Pirates will continue to reap the rewards on one of the shrewdest minor league free agent signings in recent memory.