Fernando Rodney is in very rare territory

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The Rays have had the magic touch with lightly regarded relievers before, but Fernando Rodney is easily their biggest success story yet.

The 35-year-old Rodney recorded his 31st save Wednesday, moving himself into a tie for the major league lead, and lowered his ERA to 0.74 with a scoreless inning in a 4-1 win over the A’s.

With the season nearly two-thirds over, Rodney is on pace to join Dennis Eckersley as the second reliever ever to save 40 games with a sub-1.00 ERA.

Eckersley saved 48 games and posted a 0.61 ERA in 73 1/3 innings for the A’s in 1990. That wasn’t his Cy Young and MVP year, though; he got those awards two years later when he finished with 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA in 80 innings.

Just 11 pitchers since 1900 have posted an ERA under 1.00 in at least 50 innings. It happened four times during the deadball era and once by Bill Henry in 1964. The rest to do it were modern relievers:

Rob Murphy (1986 Reds): 0.72 in 50.1 IP
Eckersley (1990 A’s): 0.61 in 73/1 IP
Chris Hammond (2002 Braves): 0.95 in 76 IP
Jonathan Papelbon (2006 Red Sox): 0.92 in 68.1 IP
Dennys Reyes (2006 Twins): 0.89 in 50.2 IP
Eric O’Flaherty (2011 Braves): 0.98 in 73.2 IP

Papelbon, the only closer besides Eckersley in the group, finished with 35 saves in 2006.

After Papelbon, a few others have managed 40 saves with ERAs just above 1.00:

John Smoltz (2003 Braves): 1.12, 45 sv
Jose Mesa (1995 Indians): 1.12, 46 sv
Eric Gagne (2003 Dodgers): 1.20, 55 Sv
Armando Benitez (2004 Marlins): 1.29, 47 Sv

So Rodney could best them all this year, which would be especially amazing considering that his best ERA in the five years from 2007-11 was a 4.24 mark. His career best in a full season was 3.52 in 2006, though he did come in at 2.86 in 44 innings in 2005.

I should also note that Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel could possibly save 40 games with a sub-1.00 ERA as well if he’s near flawless from here on in. He’s pitched 40 innings and allowed six runs so far, giving him a 1.35 ERA to go along with his 30 saves.

Matt Boyd earns No. 5 spot in Tigers’ starting rotation

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Matt Boyd has earned the No. 5 spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, which means veteran Anibal Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported on Wednesday.

Boyd, 26, pitched well this spring, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 21/0 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings. The lefty’s numbers in the majors last year weren’t nearly as good.

Sanchez, 33, is coming off of the worst season of his career and overall didn’t have a great spring, putting up a 5.03 ERA with a 20/4 K/BB ratio in 19 2/3 innings. He came on strong at the end, however, tossing 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Manager Brad Ausmus didn’t rule out the possibility of Sanchez returning to the rotation at some point.

2017 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s aren’t gonna be that great this year, you guys. Sorry about that, but it’s true. In this it will be much like last year.

But it will look a bit different than last year at least. The A’s signed Santiago CasillaMatt JoyceTrevor Plouffe and Rajai Davis to a combined $33.25 million in contracts. I don’t see how that makes them appreciably better, but they will be different.

Khris Davis is the biggest offensive weapon. He hit 42 homers last year. Marcus Semien hit 27. And despite those heroics, the A’s offense was dead last in the AL in 2016. Rajai Davis gives them a stolen base threat and Joyce had nice resurgence in a little under 300 plate appearances, but I’m not seeing how this crew is all that better than they were. I mean, I’m sure Trevor Plouffe is a nice young man, but he’s not an offensive difference maker. The biggest chance for improvement comes from a full season of Ryon Healy, who hit quite well in 72 games last year. He was also moved off of third base for Plouffe and into the DH role at the age of 25, so temper your expectations.

Turning to the rotation, Sonny Gray at the top of things looked great heading into last season, but then he regressed badly, posting an unsightly 5.69 ERA in 2016. The A’s don’t need him to be be third in the Cy Young voting again, but they certainly need him to be their ace, and last year he wasn’t that. He’ll get a late start to the season due to a back injury — he may miss the entire first month — so things are already starting off badly.

After Gray comes Sean Manaea, who debuted last year and improved as the season went along. Kendall Graveman was serviceable last year, but he doesn’t miss many bats and it’s hard to pitch well in this league when you’re striking out as few batters as Graveman does. Jharel Cotton is an intriguing fourth starter. He came over in the Rich Hill deal and continued his excellent work in the minors before a late season callup. He is homer-prone but doesn’t walk a ton of guys. Definitely a guy to watch for the future. Andrew Triggs is a swingman who was pressed into the rotation late in the year. The A’s liked what they saw, but he has been a reliever all through the minors. Organizations tend to do that to guys who they don’t think will be decent starters, so I’m not sure what a few starts at the end of a season really mean.

If Gray bounces back to 2015 form, Graveman continues to be lucky on batted balls and the other guys deliver on their small-sample-size promise, hey, things aren’t too bad! But when was the last time that kind of five-for-five gamble paid off? Odds are on a nice surprise here, some stasis there and some regression and/or growing pains mixed in to form a pretty meh rotation. And given that the A’s defense was terrible last year and doesn’t look all that better this year, look for a lot of unearned runs. And earned runs that should’ve been unearned.

The bullpen features some notable names — Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, John Axford and Santiago Casilla have all been closers in the past — with Ryan DullLiam Hendriks and Raul Alcantara providing more depth. Dull is anything but his name. His excellent K/BB ratio last year — 73/15 in 74.1 innings — is downright interesting. These guys will inherit a lot of deficits instead of leads, however, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the A’s trade off a one or two of the ~Proven Closers~ at the deadline as well.

The A’s won 69 games last year. There are three contenders in the division who are significantly better and an Angels team that employs some considerably more talented players despite its obvious flaws. The A’s have just as many flaws and top out with Khris Davis, a rebound candidate starting the year on the DL as their best starter and some interesting young arms. All of that adds up to a long, long summer from where I’m sitting.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League West.