On Sunday, Hector Rondon logged his fifth save in five opportunities since getting a serious look as the Chicago Cubs’ closer.
Hector Rondon, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010. Hector Rondon, who subsequently broke that same elbow, requiring another surgery in 2011. Hector Rondon, whom the Cubs selected second in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft, and who was featured on nary a pre-draft hype list. Hector Rondon, who put up a 5.72 ERA over 45.2 innings in 2013 through August.
Hector Rondon, for whom something clicked late last year, and kept on clicking until he’d logged that fifth save this weekend.
It’s a small sample, to be sure, but it’s a hell of a story so far for the 26-year-old righty. How exactly he came to be a hulking beast of a reliever is a pretty interesting question, given that he was a starting pitcher for the entirety of his time in the Cleveland Indians organization. But, a couple years removed from a couple surgeries, and given time to blossom in the Cubs’ bullpen, Rondon’s fastball velocity climbed from a steady 93ish mph in early 2013 to a steady 96ish mph by September. And, this year, his velocity has climbed even further, starting at a steady 96ish mph, and reaching as high as 98 and 99 mph in his most recent outing.
Rondon’s success – and we’ll get to the depth of the success in just a moment – isn’t just a story of velocity, though. He’s developed a nasty cutter, and is relying much more heavily on his two-seamer this year (as so many pitchers have come to do under Chris Bosio’s tutelage). It’s no surprise, then, that his groundball rate is up more than 20% this year. Pair that with a massive uptick in strikeouts (30% this year, versus 18.2% last year) and a massive drop in walks (7.5% this year, versus 10.3% last year), and you’ve got a dominant reliever in the middle of a breakout.
How dominant? How much of a breakout?
Well, we’re talking about just 20.1 innings over 19 appearances, so caution is advised. But the eye test matches the numbers so far, and the numbers are obscene:
1.33 ERA, 1.60 FIP, 2.57 xFIP, 10.62 K/9, 2.66 BB/9, 0 HR, .280 BABIP (also his career average), and 0.6 WAR in just 20.1 innings. For context, that’s the 7th best FIP among relievers in all of baseball. The WAR is 16th best. Rondon is in elite company right now.
Now, then. The upper stratosphere of relievers strike out a lot more batters than Rondon does, so that probably holds him back (together with the short track record) from being placed with the truly elite relief arms in baseball. Then again, very few of the elite relievers are also elite groundball guys, which will help Rondon sustain a diminished home run rate, which is pretty important for a late-inning reliever.
All in all, both the eyes and the numbers tell the story: Hector Rondon has been incredible this year.
And Neil Ramirez has been better.
How do these numbers hit you: 0.96 ERA, 1.90 FIP, 1.49 xFIP, 14.46 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, .250 BABIP (not terribly low), and 0.2 WAR in just 9.1 innings. Ahh, but there’s the rub. As small as the Rondon sample is, the Ramirez sample is just half that.
So, while yes, Ramirez has been even better than Rondon, he hasn’t yet sustained that success over any kind of significant period, given that he did not start the season with the club. Like Rondon, though, Ramirez’s numbers are stupid good so far this year, and he, too, passes the eye test. He doesn’t have quite the same velocity as Rondon – Ramirez sits in the 95mph range – but it’s an explosive fastball that misses bats when he locates it. And, man, that slider is just nasty.
I offer the Ramirez stuff here at the end of a piece that is, truly, about Rondon, simply because it’s fun. It’s fun to think about having two dominant young power arms like that in the bullpen. Or maybe three if you include Pedro Strop when he returns from the DL. Or four, if Justin Grimm tightens up his command a little bit. Or five, when Arodys Vizcaino is ready for the bigs. Or six, when Armando Rivero is similarly ready. Or seven, when …