Tigers fans should take this as an early sign that the front office is serious about spending and building a contender this offseason. Rodriguez, 28, fills one of the team’s biggest needs in the middle of the starting rotation.
Per several baseball insiders, Rodriguez’s contract is worth $77 million over five years, which would give him an average annual value of $15.4 million.
Rodriguez reportedly has a no-trade clause, as well as an opt-out after two seasons. If he does decide to opt out after 2023, that likely means the Tigers got excellent production for two seasons. If he doesn’t, he remains in Detroit through 2026. It’s a win-win.
There are also some performance incentives baked into the contract that could make the deal even more lucrative, according to reports.
Since the Boston Red Sox extended a qualifying offer to Rodriguez last week, the Tigers will have to send them draft pick compensation.
As of now, Rodriguez is set to be the second highest-paid player on the payroll in 2022, behind only Miguel Cabrera, who will make $32 million each of the next two seasons before hitting free agency.
Why Tigers liked Rodriguez
A casual baseball fan who sees this news and glances at Rodriguez’s stats from last season might wonder why the Tigers wanted him so badly. He posted a 4.74 ERA and 1.389 WHIP in 157.2 innings with the Red Sox -- not exactly $15.4 million-per-year production.
But Rodriguez was one of the unluckiest pitchers in the league. His 3.32 FIP (fielding-independent pitching), 3.43 xFIP (expected FIP), 3.55 xERA (expected ERA) and 3.64 SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) all suggest Rodriguez pitched much, much better than his final ERA. If you’re not into advanced stats, these numbers essentially mean that, based on his ability to miss bats and the quality of contact he allows, Rodriguez should have had an ERA in the 3.50 range.
For four straight seasons (2017, 2018, 2019, 2021), Rodriguez has posted a swinging strike rate between 11.1% and 11.7%. He’s not an elite bat-misser, but combined with his other skills, that rate is high enough for him to be effective.
Rodriguez is adept at getting called strikes, which partly explains how he whiffed 10.6 batters per nine innings with an 11.7% swinging strike rate in 2021. His high strikeout rate and low walk rate (2.7 walks per nine innings) are perhaps the main reasons his underlying numbers look so healthy.
The 28-year-old has also established himself as a reliable ground ball pitcher, with ground ball rates of 48.5% in 2019 and 43.2% in 2021. (Rodriguez missed the entire 2020 season due to a serious case of myocarditis caused by COVID-19.)
Any starter who combines a high strikeout rate with a high ground ball rate has major potential, and that’s what the Tigers are banking on with Rodriguez.
In addition to the implied positive regression Rodriguez should see based on his performance, this is also a massive park upgrade.
Outside of Coors Field, Rodriguez might have been pitching in the worst situation possible for a left-hander with average fastball velocity. According to Statcast park factors, Fenway Park has been the second-worst pitching venue in MLB on a three-year rolling average.
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In 78 career appearances at his home ballpark, Rodriguez owned a 4.30 ERA and 1.332 WHIP. His career road numbers: A 4.04 ERA and 1.294 WHIP.
He’s only made three career starts at Comerica Park, allowing five runs in 15 innings (3.00 ERA) with a 1.267 WHIP and 19 strikeouts. Those numbers are excellent, but the sample size is too small to draw conclusions.
But just looking at Rodriguez’s profile, it makes sense that he can excel in Detroit. On top of being a ground ball pitcher, swapping out the Green Monster and short right field corner for the deep alleys in Comerica Park can only help when Rodriguez does make mistakes.
Rodriguez ranks in the 87th percentile in terms of allowing hard contact, so he should keep the ball in the yard more often in Detroit.
How he fits in
Rodriguez joins a trio of rookies -- Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning -- in the 2022 starting rotation. Performance will dictate where exactly he fits in, but there’s a chance he’s right at the top, just two years removed from a 6.1 WAR (wins above replacement) 2019 season in which he finished sixth in Cy Young award voting.
Mize finished 2021 with 3.3 WAR and Skubal finished with 1.7 WAR. Rodriguez, even as unlucky as he was, posted 1.9 WAR, suggesting he could slot in behind Mize for the time being.
Al Avila is off to an excellent start this offseason, but he still has at least two more items to check off the list: another starting pitcher and, of course, a star shortstop. If those dominoes fall, the Tigers will start to look like a playoff contender as early as next season.