The Most Surprising All-Star Of Them All

CLEVELAND, OH: Closing pitcher Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians of the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. The Rays defeated the Indians 7-6. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Fernando Rodney is an All-Star in 2012. And not because he's representing a terrible team -- because he actually deserves it.

Lately there's been some debate over which pitchers ought to start the All-Star Game. Nobody really minded the idea of Justin Verlander starting for the American League, but Tony La Russa was given a choice between R.A. Dickey and Matt Cain in the National League, and whatever he went with, people were going to complain. Both Dickey and Cain come with convincing cases.

La Russa sided with Cain over the knuckleballer. Now, of course, much of the debate and the corresponding emotion has been manufactured -- both Dickey and Cain will pitch, and this is simply a matter of who will pitch first. But starting an All-Star Game is unquestionably an honor. It adds color and prestige to a player's personal record. For results purposes, it doesn't really matter who goes first, but Cain effectively beat out Dickey for an award.

It's an honor to be able to start an All-Star Game, but that's an option only for starters. Relievers make the All-Star teams, too, and for relievers, the greatest honor they can receive is closer designation. The best starter gets to start; the best reliever gets to finish. This year, in the event of a save situation, the American League closer will be Fernando Rodney.

Rodney said late Monday he is in line to pitch the ninth if the AL has the lead, but no matter what inning he works after getting the final out he plans to "shoot" his celebratory arrow into the air — as he usually does after getting a save for the Rays.

There are a number of surprising 2012 All-Stars, and a year ago no one really saw Bryan LaHair coming. But LaHair, at least, had posted some strong numbers in triple-A, and was reasonably young. This will be Rodney's first-ever All-Star Game. He's 35 years old, and last season he finished with more walks than strikeouts. Rodney was one of those relievers who stuck around on account of his stuff, but who couldn't harness it well enough to make himself trustworthy. For three months, he's been one of the best pitchers in the world.

It's not like Rodney has never before been good, and it's not like no one knew he had the talent. He's always thrown a fastball in the mid-90s with a well-disguised changeup. In 2009, he saved 37 games. In 2007, he finished with 21 walks and 54 strikeouts. Rodney's been interesting from the day he first showed up in the majors. But his career was trending in the wrong direction, and this graph of Rodney's strike rate probably says all that needs to be said:

Rodneystrikes_medium

For a decade, Rodney couldn't be counted on to throw strikes when he needed to. He got by on stuff alone, and come 2011 he could hardly even do that anymore. I will copy and paste for you Rodney's current Baseball-Reference player page sponsor message, created last October:

Michael Shea sponsor(s) this page.

Fernando, save everyone their time. Next time just walk up and place the ball on a tee.

It's an odd message, because Rodney's problem has never really been hits. Coming into 2012, he'd allowed a career batting average of .243, and a career slugging percentage of .368. The problem was command, as Rodney had allowed a career on-base percentage of .346. But the general message applies -- Rodney wasn't good. Coaches didn't trust him, and fans didn't like him.

He's good now. He's always tried to make adjustments to improve his location, but only the adjustments he's made with the Rays have paid off. We don't need to go into what those might have been, because that isn't what's important; what's important is that Rodney is suddenly a shutdown closer a year after smelling like toast. Last year, Rodney walked or hit 21 percent of the batters he faced. For his career before 2012, he'd walked or hit nearly 13 percent of the batters he'd faced. In 2012, he's down below four percent. Rodney issued as many unintentional walks in his first two appearances of 2011 as he's issued through 40 appearances in 2012. And his strikeouts are there, by the barrel-full.

Prior to this season, Fernando Rodney was your least-favorite pitcher in your favorite team's bullpen. He didn't make enough of the pitches he threw, and he always seemed to teeter on the edge of disaster, if he didn't actually fall down. Now, Rodney is your favorite pitcher in your favorite team's bullpen. He doesn't get hit. He doesn't put people on. He makes people miss, he ends games, and he shoots an invisible arrow at the sky while the first baseman asks him where the arrow's going. This is a thing that Rodney does with Carlos Pena. Rodney has developed one of baseball's coolest save celebrations. Fernando Rodney.

Fernando Rodney has undergone the transformation you always know is possible, but that never seems to take place. 99 percent of the time, players who tease remain teases until people stop allowing themselves to be teased. Rodney's not a tease anymore. At 34, he was a pile of crap. At 35, he's the American League's All-Star Game closer. Where Fernando Rodney used to test the limits of one's patience, now he stands as evidence that perhaps we ought to have more of it.

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