The Phillies acquired Joely Rodriguez is the winter of 2014 for the last year of Antonio Bastardo. Rodriguez was coming off a pedestrian trip through the Eastern league, but a very good appearance in the Arizona Fall League. The thought at the time was that Rodriguez might be a back end starter because of his average stuff across the board and strong ground ball tendencies. It went disastrously in 2015. He walked almost as many as he struck out in AAA, then earned a demotion to AA where he was better, but not great. All of it together got him outrighted off the 40 man roster and left him without even an invite to major league spring training.
The 2016 season started off much the same with Rodriguez pitching 10.2 innings for Reading in April with a 4.22 ERA while walking 9 and only striking out 6. Rodriguez was still generating ground balls at a high rate. When he was demoted to Clearwater on April 29 it seemed like the beginning of a slide to no longer being in the organization…
Except he dominated the Florida State League. Over a 7 game stint in Florida, Joely Rodriguez seized the closer job and pitched 8.1 innings while allowing 4 baserunners (3 hits and 1 walk) and striking out 10. Rodriguez was then sent back to Reading where he has been just as good, posting a 0.50 ERA over 18 innings while allowing 12 hits, 2 walks, and 21 strikeouts. With a June that has yet to see him walk a batter, Rodriguez is firmly back entrenched in the organization.
Rodriguez has the stuff to succeed in the bullpen. He comes at batters from a low arm slot with a fastball that sits in the 89-93 range, and he has bumped it to 95 in the past. The pitch has good movement and sink. Rodriguez matches that with a slider with good two plane movement that he will throw in the mid 80s. He also has a changeup with some armside run and fade.. Joely’s low slot adds solid deception vs left handed pitchers. After whatever changed in Clearwater, Rodriguez is showing much better command and he has been able to keep the ball down in the zone.
It isn’t just filling up the strikezone with solid stuff that makes Rodriguez interesting, it is what his stuff has done. On the season Joely has a 62.5% GB%, that is down a little bit over his hot streak to 56.5%, but either way he is producing groundballs at a high rate. In addition to the ground ball rate, Rodriguez has kept a low home run rate. Now this is obviously a product of having a lot of balls on the ground, but some sinker ballers have struggled with giving up home runs when their stuff flattens out, especially when left up in the zone. It seems simple to say, but if you don’t walk batters, generate weak contact, and keep the ball in the yard you are going to have a lot of success.
So what is Rodriguez’s role. If he can keep throwing strikes he can be a useful middle reliever. What could really carry Rodriguez to the majors is what he is doing to left handed batters right now. Lefties this year are hitting .159/.191/.159 off Rodriguez with a 4.3% BB% and 31.9% K%. There is always a need for major league LOOGYs, and if Rodriguez can do double duty as a middle reliever and a high leverage lefty specialist he has a major league role.
Rodriguez is still only 24 which means that him making these improvements is not unprecedented. That being said, Rodriguez has a long track record of struggling with command so it is not going to be smooth sailing into a major league role for Rodriguez, but he has put himself back on the map as a guy who could have a major league role for a team.