10/01/09 1:47 AM ET
Rodney may bend, but he rarely breaks
Tigers closer brings swagger to nailbiting save outings
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Tigers fans have spent most of the year wondering how a closer who has blown only one of his 37 save chances this year can make so many of them seem like a thrill ride. Three-run leads have turned into one-run games twice this month. Other games come perilously close, such as the night he walked the bases loaded with Cardinals in a three-run game and escaped with a double play.
Rodney has pitched a perfect ninth inning in less than a quarter of his save situations. He has had multiple baserunners in a dozen.
His teammates and coaches know how he does it. The same mentality that allows him to shrug off the couple runs or hits that bring the potential tying run to the plate allows him to execute the pitch that leaves it there.
"There's nothing soft about Rodney," manager Jim Leyland said last month. "Rodney's a trooper. He's a gamer."
Rodney doesn't get rattled. He might get out of whack mechanically, fling a fastball to the backdrop or spike a changeup in the dirt, but it won't be out of fear. If the Tigers can finish off the Twins and get to the postseason, a ninth inning with Rodney is going to be quite a show on the national stage, just in time for possibly the least heralded closer headed for the playoffs to become a free agent.
There's a statistical dichotomy going on here between the efficiency and the damage. According to research from STATS, no closer with at least 25 saves in a season and only one blown chance has posted an ERA higher than 3.00 since the save became an official stat in 1969.
Rodney's 4.41 ERA would obviously obliterate that mark. Even if he blows another save chance, his ERA would be the highest for anyone with at least 25 saves and two blown opportunities, topping Ryan Dempster's 3.13 ERA.
To be fair, those numbers include a 6.19 ERA for Rodney in non-save situations, either when he's protecting a four-run lead or when he enters in a blowout to get in some work. His 2.89 ERA in save situations is much more reasonable, but still higher than expected.
His on-and-off issues with walks suggest an inconsistency, but there's nothing scattered about his end results. When the Tigers have needed the final out from Rodney, they've almost always gotten it. In that sense, he has blossomed into the front-line closer that Leyland and others in the organization had waited for him to become.
The comparisons some in Detroit have made with Todd Jones aren't well-grounded. Though the sense of suspense might be similar, their styles and routes to get their results are different. Jones mixed pitches, speeds and locations to get hitters to go for the pitch he wanted, not what they wanted.
Rodney is a high-velocity, high-strikeout pitcher whose combination of a high-90s fastball and low-80s changeup from the same motion are devastating. But he's also a pitcher with a history of falling out of form easily, with what used to be devastating results. He has tempered those spells with hard work between outings, throwing a lot of drills designed to improve command.
"He busts his butt," pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "He really works hard. I mean, he works as hard as anybody. You see him after the game, and he's in the weight room, doing his stuff to make sure he's in perfect tune, ready condition. He's the first one out every day pitching-wise, stretching to make sure that he's prepared. It's not the Rodney that you would stereotype."
Like Jones, Rodney is not a pitcher to let an opponent rattle him. His games might bend, but in close games, they rarely break, no matter who's at the plate. Before he sent down Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Rivera in order last month against the Angels, he said he knew they would be the final three outs of the game.
More recently, after a Brandon Inge diving catch finished off a Rodney save last Thursday at Cleveland, Rodney returned the gesture by rebounding from a fly ball over center field Curtis Granderson to finish off a save over Minnesota Tuesday.
In other words, there's a swagger, which Leyland loves to see.
"I do think the closer dictates a lot of the mentality of the club," Leyland said. "If you have closers that are blowing them, that takes some heart out of your team. And when you've got a closer that's closing most all of them, that gives your team that little swagger in that inning that's real important."
That confidence from Leyland has meant plenty to Rodney.
"I feel more comfortable this year," Rodney said, "because he gives me a chance. It's important to me that he gives me a chance, and I can show every night, every time I go to the mound, I can do what I'm supposed to do."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.