It’s playoff time, and that means that we have some stuff to discuss.
Obviously, we’ve had plenty to talk about all season long, but now that Game 1 of the NLDS is just one short day away, everything seems to be a bit heightened, a bit more pressing ….
… Which brings me to Hector Rondon.
The Cubs’ erstwhile closer burned through a fantastic first half of the season, before being removed as closer when Aroldis Chapman joined the fold, and was ultimately injured near the beginning/middle of August.
Since then, his numbers haven’t quite resembled his usual, dominant self, and with the postseason just days away, it’s certainly something to consider. But is it necessarily something to be worried about? I’m not so sure. So let’s dig into the numbers and the story, to see where things stand.
First, let’s see if the stats follow the story (short version: yup). From the beginning of the season until July 31, Hector Rondon had a 1.74 ERA and a 2.42 FIP. Indeed, through his first 41.1 IP of the season, he struck out 50 batters (33.1% K-rate), while walking just five of them (3.3%). All of which suggested that he was still one of the games’ very best closers (likely just under that super-elite tier). From August first through the end of the season, however, his numbers were … eh hem, a lot worse: 11.17 ERA, 8.11 FIP, 16.3% K-rate, 6.1% walk rate.
Aside from the ballooning ERA and FIP, his strikeout rate halved and his walk rate doubled. So yes, he struggled a lot during that stretch. The question is, “Why?”
First of all, I’d like to point out that those numbers were posted over just 9.2 IP. While a nearly-elite reliever will almost never post numbers that gaudy over a 9-10 innings stretch, it’s hardly a significant sample size. Moreover, Rondon was injured near the beginning of August and tried to make a comeback without taking time off on the disabled list. Take a look at his first (failed) attempt to return on August 14 against the Cardinals: 0.1 IP, 4 earned runs, 4H, 0 BB.
Although he made another relief appearance two days later, he then immediately hit the shelf for three weeks. Lopping off those two appearances doesn’t magically make his numbers all that much better, but two injury-riddled relief appearances cannot be relied upon as predictable or projectable data either.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough. Since returning from the DL on September 6, Rondon’s numbers still don’t look very good. So what’s up?
From September 6 – October 1, Rondon made nine appearances out of the pen. He allowed no hits in four of those games, no walks in eight of those games, and no runs in five of those games. In fact, there were really just three troubling outings that have disproportionately ruined his numbers. And although they can’t just be thrown away or explained by an injury, there is at least some explanation offered up by manager Joe Maddon and Rondon, himself.
At ESPN Chicago, Jesse Rogers shared Maddon’s postgame thoughts after Rondon’s final appearance (2 earned runs on 3 hits and 1 walk against the Reds), and it’s not an unreasonable explanation: “His stuff was good. It’s a matter of location more than anything. And possibly just the moment.” Indeed, Rondon has repeatedly said that he feels good (and his velocity has looked fine as well), instead, it’s this idea of “the moment” that keeps popping up.
Rondon’s last five appearances came in moments where the Cubs were either up big or already trailing … at a point in the season where the Cubs had not only clinched the playoffs, but also the best record in baseball. We can pretend that the moment is a made up idea that doesn’t affect a player’s performance, but in one way or another we’ve see the opposite play out plenty of times. In fact, the moment seems to (in my non-statistically-based opinion) affect late-inning relievers disproportionately.
But it isn’t just about adrenaline and competitive energy. In fact, it might be a lot more specific than that.
Rondon added in his conversation with Rogers that these nearly meaningless appearances in lopsided games for a team that has already achieved so much leaves only one important factor: staying healthy. Essentially, Rondon felt that there was no reason to push it and risk further injury/time off, with the postseason just around the corner. And to really drive this home, that goes double for a pitcher like Rondon, who made just three appearances in August and eight in September.
And this isn’t some brand new idea, he, Maddon, Rogers, or we made up in retrospect to help you sleep better at night. It’s a storyline we discussed earlier this year in Spring Training. On March 21st, I wrote about Rondon’s Spring Training struggles (which were significant, in terms of results), but cautioned against an overreaction:
The most important angle to keep in mind is that Rondon is healthy, his stuff looks good, and his velocity is right where it’s supposed to be. According to Rondon, he was throwing 94-96 MPH last week, and has plans to crank it up to 97 MPH before the end of the Spring. He isn’t worried at all.
Does that sound familiar? It should, because right now, the most important thing to keep in mind is that Rondon is healthy, his stuff looks good and his velocity is right where it’s supposed to be. If I were to guess, I’d say he answers the call in the NLDS, just like he did through the first half of the season.