Fernando Rodney: Relief Genius or Epic Fluke?

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Fernando Rodney belied his mediocre resume to inexplicably turn into one of the best closers in baseball in 2012. The Rays, and fantasy owners, are banking on him to do it again this season, but there's evidence aplenty that there will be no repeat.

Fernando Rodney is the reason why you should never take a closer early in fantasy drafts. He's the reason. When 2012 began, Rodney was rotting on waiver wires and there was no reason in the world to own him in a fantasy league. He was signed by the Rays as part of their annual overhaul of the bullpen, and stood to be basically a bland middle reliever/mop up guy. He hadn't posted an ERA under four since 2006, nor had he had a strikeout rate over 9.0 since 2008. In short, he appeared to be the last guy whom fantasy owners should be paying attention to.

Then Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth got hurt in Spring Training, and the rest is history. Rodney was given the ninth inning role when the season started (he had been a closer before with the Tigers and Angels), and he was pretty much completely untouchable from April to the end of the season. Rodney racked up 48 saves, second in the American League, and did it while compiling a minuscule 0.60 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. He struck out 76 batters while walking just 15 (in 74.2 innings), and blew just two saves all year. In fact, there were two months (July and September) where he didn't give up any runs at all. He was just about as automatic as a closer can get.

It was one of the most out-of-nowhere brilliant seasons in recent memory. Rodney had washed out as a closer in Detroit and L.A., and his major undoing had always been horrible control. From 2006-2011, Rodney had a walk rate under 4.0 just once, bottoming out at a horrid 7.9 per nine innings in 2011. Even when he saved 37 games in 2009, he was only marginally valuable as a fantasy closer because his ERA and WHIP were so bad (4.40 and 1.47, respectively). Needless to say, no one saw Rodney's 2012 coming.

One of the keys to Rodney's brilliant season was his new found ability to put the ball in the strike zone. After having so many control issues throughout his career, Rodney made a staggering improvement in that area last year, walking just 1.8 per nine innings. All others factors considered, if Rodney continues to avoid the free passes in the future, there's no reason that he won't continue to be an effective closer going forward.

However, those "other factors" show us a guy who isn't going to put up another ERA that you can only see with a microscope. First off, I don't care how good his control was, you're never going to convince me that a pitcher with a career 4.29 ERA going into the season can repeat a year where his ERA was well below 1.00. Rodney's season is such an obvious fluke, it probably doesn't even merit mentioning that his BABIP was also microscopically low (it was .225). Tampa Bay has one of the best defensive units in baseball, but that number is still likely to go up. If his BABIP rises just to .270, his ERA will likely rise substantially and he won't look like a genius anymore.

Rodney is almost sure to see his ERA rise and will probably blow a few more saves this year, just on the law of averages. I wouldn't be shocked to see him have an ERA somewhere in the 3's. That isn't to say that he won't be a good closer for one more season. Heck, as long as a closer can save upwards of 30 games, he has value on your fantasy team, even if he isn't the second coming of Mariano Rivera. Rodney will probably regress, but his saves total will almost surely still be high, assuming he stays healthy.

Rodney's season illustrates a larger point I like to make about closers in general. Rodney came out of nowhere and could have been picked up for nothing in April, and that's the thing. You should never, ever reach in drafts for these guys, because closers pop up out of nowhere every year and then tend to fade into the ether just as quickly. It isn't every single year that a pitcher magically turns from dog poop to diamonds and morphs into an All-Star closer, of course, but you do get a handful of no-names who show up off the free agent wire and save 20-25 games just about every year.

So think carefully about where you draft your first closer, obviously, and think very carefully before trading for one (especially in keeper leagues). Their value is generally limited and they are very inconsistent from year to year. Rodney is likely no different. He'll probably save a lot of games again and be just fine in the closer's role again, but he could just as easily fall apart, knowing his history. If you insist on grabbing a closer early, at least make it a high-strikeout guy like Craig Kimbrel, a pitcher who adds value in more than just one category. Rodney is basically part of the mass of interchangeable closers you take when there's a sudden run on them in your draft.

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