The Boston Red Sox rotation, when healthy, is one of the best in the league. Chris Sale is one of the top five starters in baseball, and David Price, Drew Pomeranz, and Rick Porcello are all above average at their respective spot in the rotation. However, there is one X-Factor in the rotation that could truly send this group from great to elite. Eduardo Rodriguez has flashed talent since entering the majors in 2015, but has struggled with consistency. Now in his fourth major league season, here’s what needs to happen for the Eduardo Rodriguez breakout season to become reality.

The Eduardo Rodriguez Breakout Season

Start Healthy and Stay Healthy

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The first jersey Rodriguez wears this season shouldn’t be a Boston Red Sox one

Image credit: Portland Press Herald

E-Rod is expected to miss the start of the regular season, but it’s not all bad news. Rodriguez has begun throwing bullpen sessions off the mound, and could be ready to return as soon as mid-April. This is ahead of the initial recovery date, which is obviously good news.

However, Alex Cora and the Red Sox need to be smart about bringing E-Rod back. His off-season knee surgery was mostly seen as a maintenance work, but he’s had knee injuries before. The Red Sox need to be sure not to bring him back into the rotation before he’s ready to go.

He’s been rushed back too early before, and the results haven’t been great. E-Rod went through a different knee issue in 2016, and came back a bit earlier than he should have. The 2016 rotation was something of a mess at the time, so it’s understandable why then-manager John Farrell wanted E-Rod back as soon as possible.

Learning from History

However, learning from history shows patience is the best course. E-Rod made his 2016 season debut on May 31st, and after six starts he held an ugly 8.59 ERA. He gave up four or more earned runs four times, and only made it out of the sixth inning twice.

The Red Sox demoted Rodriguez to Pawtucket to fix his mechanics and get healthy. He returned three weeks later looking like a completely different player. Rodriguez made fourteen starts and recorded a 3.24 ERA after that demotion. He was one of the best pitchers on the team and should have started in the playoffs against the Cleveland Indians.

Brian Johnson is currently scheduled to take E-Rod’s spot in the rotation. It will be tempting for Cora to get Rodriguez back in the rotation as early as possible, but he needs to be smart. Rushing E-Rod is a short sighted move that will only make the team and Rodriguez worse in the long run. Get him healthy, and let him dominate.

Use the Slider

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When it’s working, Rodriguez has one of the best sliders in baseball

While getting E-Rod fully healthy rests primarily on the training and coaching staff, E-Rod needs to make sure he’s smart with his pitch selection. Rodriguez is a three-pitch pitcher, and can be unhittable when all three are working. His fastball is his main pitch, and he has a nasty change up. However, it’s his slider that makes him deadly.

When Rodriguez doesn’t trust his slider, his pitches become predictable. Hitters can sit on the fastball and change up, and those pitches alone aren’t good enough to consistently get guys out. That’s not to say that E-Rod can only get guys out with the slider; he’s had good games rarely throwing it. Last season against the Baltimore Orioles, E-Rod pitched six shutout innings while throwing his slider just 5.6% of the time.

However, a lot of E-Rod’s bad starts have one thing in common: the absence of the slider. In 2017, Rodriguez had six starts in which he pitched fewer than six innings and gave up four or more earned runs. His slider use was under 10% in four of those six starts.

Looking at the data, most of E-Rod’s noted inconsistency comes from starts where he doesn’t use his slider. When healthy and not using his slider, his good versus bad starts are split roughly 50/50. When he’s healthy and able to keep batters guessing, he almost always puts up quality starts.

What to Expect This Year

I’ve admittedly been high on Rodriguez ever since his 2015 debut, but this should be his breakout year. Rodriguez has been in the majors long enough that Alex Cora should know the best way to use E-Rod. He’ll know that E-Rod needs to get his slider working. He’ll know that rushing E-Rod back to replace Brian Johnson is a bad idea.

It wasn’t that long ago that E-Rod was one of the top prospects in baseball, and he’s still just 24. He won’t ever threaten Sale for the ace position, but there’s no reason to think that he can’t push for the second or third spot in the rotation. Regardless of where he ends up in the lineup, he should push the unit over the top. Sale, Price, Pomeranz, Porcello, and a healthy Rodriguez should be nearly unhittable. Combine that with a strong offense and bullpen, and these Red Sox should be very hard to beat this season.


Cover Image Credit: NBC Sports