WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 22: Pitcher Henry Rodriguez #63 of the Washington Nationals works the eight inning against the Seattle Mariners at Nationals Park on June 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Washington Nationals won, 2-1. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Washington Nationals' reliever Henry Rodriguez threw 35.2 innings without allowing a home run. In Rodriguez's 31st appearance of the year, Florida Marlins' catcher John Buck finally got hold of a pitch that left the park. It was the only home run the 24-year-old reliever allowed in 2011. Tyler Clippard, arguably the MVP of the Nats' bullpen, allowed 11 HR's in 88.1 IP. Drew Storen, Nationals' closer, surrendered eight HR's in 75.1 IP.
Henry Rodriguez allowed just that one home run in 65.2 IP. By the time the season ended, the one-time A's prospect who'd moved from starting to the pen in Oakland's organization before he was acquired to be part of the back end of the Nats' bullpen, was being referred to as a backup closer, called upon to close games out when Storen was unavailable.
While Rodriguez's 6.17 BB/9 were the second highest BB/9 amongst qualified NL relievers, behind only Aroldis Chapman (7.38 BB/9), the Nats' right-hander's 1.8% HR/FB% was the second-lowest in the National League behind only the Giants' left-hander Javier Lopez, who didn't allow a single HR's in 53.0 IP.
Rodriguez threw the 10th highest pitch total amongst relievers in 2011, with 1,236 pitches in 65.2 IP, threw the fourth-highest total of pitches outside the zone, but when he got batters to chase, Rodriguez had the fourth-lowest contact rate on pitches outside the zone (50.2%, behind only LA's Kenley Jansen 47.0%, and the Braves' duo of Jonny Venters 43.9% and Craig Kimbrel 43.8%).
The 24-year-old right-hander had the 11th highest swinging strike % in the National League, behind the likes of the Rockies' Rafael Betancourt and Huston Street, the Phillies' Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson, the Braves' Kimbrel and Venters, Rodriguez's teammate Tyler Clippard and the Dodgers' Jansen.
When Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson finally settled on a role for the former Oakland A's prospect acquired last winter in the deal that sent Josh Willingham to the west coast, Rodriguez responded with a strong month of September in which he allowed just eight hits, four walks and three runs in 13 games and 12.1 IP over which he K'd 14 and recorded his first two major league saves.
"I think he's a little more comfortable and staying within himself, throwing strikes," Davey Johnson told reporters as the season wound down. "His command issues at times, I think I kind of got him a little out of whack trying to get him to pitch more than one inning because he fancies himself more of a one inning guy and he had a little trouble sometimes in that second inning, or even one time I tried to get him to go three innings, but I think he's maturing into either a set-up guy or [possible]* closer down the line, so I'm pleased at how he's progressing."
Rodriguez's last two outings of 2011 left a lasting impression as he struck out the side in an 11-pitch frame against the Atlanta Braves, setting SS Jack Wilson down for the third out with consecutive 100, 101, 101 mph fastballs followed by an 88mph 1-2 slider for a called strike three in a 1-2-3 seventh that also saw backup Braves' backstop David Ross try to bunt with two strikes when he realized he couldn't hit Rodriguez's fastball. The impressive outing that night took place after six strong by Ross Detwiler. Rodriguez then handed the ball to Tyler Clippard for the eighth and Drew Storen for the ninth. Storen closed out the Nats' 78th win of the season. With Storen unavailable in the first game of three against Florida one night later, Rodriguez was called upon to close out win no. 79, recording his second career save in his last outing of the year.
The Nationals scouted Rodriguez extensively before making the trade with the A's (that also brought OF Corey Brown in return), with D.C. GM Mike Rizzo telling MLB Network Radio's Power Alley hosts Kevin Kennedy and Mike Ferrin in a late February appearance on the show that they felt he was finally figuring it out:
"Everybody saw the arm, I like the compact body. He's a big physical strong guy, stocky strong, that had two wipeout pitches. He's got a plus plus fastball and at times a wipeout unhittable slider. The thing with Henry was he needed to control the strike zone a little bit better...
"...our scouts have told me that this guy was starting to figure it out as a reliever, because...he'd been transferred from starting to relieving a year and a half ago, that transformation takes a little bit of an adjustment period, but this guy's stuff was always there, but his feel for pitching got better and better and better each time we saw him."
One year later the ability to "control the strike zone" is still the same concern with Rodriguez. When he's on he's well-nigh unhittable. When he's off he's wild and capable of walking batters at an alarming rate. The right-hander was out of options when he was acquired so he had to stay on the major league roster. Rodriguez got off to a late start after visa and neck issues, but managed to remain in the majors all year, and may have earned an important role in the 2012 Nats' bullpen.
(ed. note - " * = Mr. Johnson said either possible or 'partial' closer, the audio was mixed with stadium music and the sound of the field being prepared.")