2016 Phillies Report Card: Joely Rodriguez
Joely Rodriguez joined the Phillies after the 2014 season, following an inconsistent season between the rotation and the bullpen while with Pittsburgh’s double A affiliate. He performed well in the Arizona Fall League, at which point he was requested in return for long time Phillies’ bullpen stalwart Antonio Bastardo. This is apt, as both teams were exchanging similar skillsets, just at different places on the risk/team control curve.
Both Rodriguez and Bastardo are sturdy-bodied left hand pitchers, relying (at their best) on mid-90s fastballs and whiff-inducing sliders. They both rose through the minors as starting pitchers, but due to fringe-y changeups and control problems, were likely to move to the bullpen. Certainly, there are some differences. Rodriguez throws a sinker, has a harder slider, employs a lower arm slot, and focuses more on generating ground balls. Bastardo has always had a very high strikeout rate, and relies far more heavily on a 3/4 arm slot and fourseam fastball to accomplish that end.
However, as a general profile, they’re undoubtedly similar – left-handed, likely seventh-inning arms with a possible setup man peak. The trade was instead more interesting as a trade of risk, potential, and inexpensive team control for an established arm with a track record, even if it was more expensive and for a shorter period of time. The trade-off was mutually beneficial, because of both teams’ competitive windows. The Phillies were becoming more realistic about their competitive chances and entering a rebuild head-on. The Pirates finally had a competitive core with Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Neil Walker, and a breakout performance from Josh Harrison. Behind Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, Bastardo provided another late-inning option for a team expecting to compete.
But enough about the trade that brought Rodriguez to Philadelphia – he had an interesting enough 2016 on its own to justify a report card evaluation. Following a disappointing 2015 season in the rotation – a 6.19 RA/9 and minuscule 2.9 percent K-BB rate in 129.1 innings – Rodriguez was converted to relief full-time and sent back to double A Reading. This initial stint was unsuccessful, and after six appearances, Rodriguez was demoted to high A Clearwater.
Something immediately clicked in Florida, and over 8.1 innings, Rodriguez allowed no runs, struck out 10, and walked only one while generating 65 percent ground balls. This performance earned Rodriguez a return to Reading, where the success continued. Over his next 27 games, he continued to throw strikes while generating groundballs and strikeouts and limiting walks. He earned a promotion to triple A Lehigh Valley, where his peripherals took a slight hit against more experienced competition. He remained with the team through the end of their season, after which he became one of the Phillies’ September call-ups.
He received only a limited look in the Majors, but he displayed enough during that time to be considered one of the most interesting arms in the bullpen entering 2017. His fastballs (both the fourseam and twoseam varieties) sat at roughly 96 mph, while his hard slider averaged 87 mph. He generated a large number of ground balls and a respectable 11.3 percent whiff rate.
Once converted to relief, Rodriguez quickly ascended three Minor League levels and debuted in the Major Leagues as an exciting young relief prospect. He enters 2017 as one of the highest ranking left-handed relief options on the team, and has some upside out of the bullpen. His control will be the predominant question moving forward, and determine a lot about his role moving forward. Considering that this grade encompasses not only his brief Minor League stint, but also the totality of his efforts in the Minor Leagues, this is a player who took a step forward in 2016.