Is 2017 The Year Eduardo Rodriguez Reaches Full Potential With Red Sox?

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Eduardo Rodriguez has been with the Boston Red Sox for two seasons, and it’s still not apparent what kind of pitcher the 23-year-old is. But now that David Price could start his season on the disabled list with an elbow injury, Rodriguez might have to figure that out sooner rather than later.

The left-hander, who came to Boston in 2014 in the trade that sent Andrew Miller to the Baltimore Orioles, showed flashes of greatness on the mound in 2015 and 2016, but that only happened after Rodriguez made some major adjustments. And through his growing pains, Rodriguez managed to turn in two totally different performances.

The Venezuela native was limited by injuries and some poor performances in both of his seasons with the Red Sox, making 21 starts and pitching 121 1/3 innings in 2015 compared to 20 starts and 107 innings in 2016. It seems as though it should be an easy comparison given the sample sizes, but when you dig deeper, you see that Rodriguez displayed two different sets of skills that directly contradict each other.

Rodriguez went 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA in 2015 compared to a 3-7 record with a 4.71 ERA last season. But by most accounts, Rodriguez actually was better in 2016. Rodriguez struggled to begin the season, turning in an 8.59 ERA in the first half before spending some time in Triple-A Pawtucket and doing a complete 180 in the second half.

And one of the biggest differences was where the ball went after it came out of the lefty’s hand.

According to FanGraphs, Rodriguez’s ground ball percentage went down from 43 percent in 2015 to 31.6 percent in 2016, while his fly ball percentage ballooned from 33.4 percent to 46 percent. He was, by any measure, a fly-ball pitcher last season, and that came from elevating his four-seam fastball in the strike zone. This strategy had its ups and downs, as it produced more swinging strikes on the pitch, but he was victimized by right-handed power hitters at Fenway Park and gave up more home runs. Again, this is something that was a bigger problem in the first half than the second, as he gave up nine homers in just 29 1/3 innings with opposing batters slashing .312/.372/.621 before the All-Star break compared to seven home runs in 77 2/3 innings with a .207/.284/.329 opponent slash line after.

Rodriguez made two other huge changes in Pawtucket, though, by adjusting his stance and improving his third pitch, the slider. Tipping pitches became Rodriguez’s M.O. early in his major league career, but by setting his glove at eye-level before his wind-up, he was able to make which pitches he was preparing to throw less obvious. That, coupled with another pitch in his arsenal, made Rodriguez better and more confident. His slider still needed work, but between tipping and only throwing two pitches for most of the first half, it was a huge improvement.

So where does that leave Rodriguez for 2017?

There’s good reason to think the southpaw could at least come close to his ceiling this coming season — provided his knee injury heals up nicely — considering how much he’s experimented with his game in finding what works for him. SoxProspects.com gave him a ceiling of “a quality No. 3 starter” way back when, and that’s exactly what the Red Sox need behind Chris Sale and Rick Porcello with Price’s timetable to return being so uncertain. Not to mention, with less hype around him now than in seasons past, Rodriguez might be able to comfortably fly under the radar to start the season.

Either way, Rodriguez has shown that even when he has to make adjustments, he can do it pretty seamlessly for a guy who, in the big picture, has little Major League Baseball experience. And while the Red Sox certainly won’t be able to lean on Rodriguez to produce the same results Price can, they very well could end up seeing a pitcher who deserves a full-time spot in their rotation.

Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images

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