Baseball has a way of giving you the last thing you’d expect.
Fernando Rodney began the 2019 season with the Oakland A’s. After posting a 9.42 ERA in 17 games, the right-hander was designated for assignment and released at the end of May. At age 42 he was the oldest active player in the majors by nearly three years, and it was fair to assume he might be finished. Instead, five months later, he’ll suit up to pitch in the World Series.
Oakland A’s fans are acutely familiar with the volatility of relievers. We saw Blake Treinen turn from a cast-off to a historically great All-Star and then back down to a non-tender candidate in the span of about two calendar years, and we saw Liam Hendriks turn from a DFA into an All-Star in around 12 months. But Rodney’s bounce-back is still flabbergasting.
When the A’s picked up Rodney’s contract option last winter, I supported the move. Most of Athletics Nation disagreed, but I didn’t mind spending $5 million on a veteran with significant late-inning experience. When he flopped and got released, I freely admitted to being wrong, but maybe my concession was premature.
Here’s what the A’s got for their money:
Rodney, 2019 OAK: 9.42 ERA, 14⅓ ip, 14 Ks, 12 BB, 2 HR, 5.59 FIP
And here’s what he did after being picked up by the Washington Nationals in early June:
Rodney, 2019 WAS: 4.05 ERA, 33⅓ ip, 35 Ks, 16 BB, 3 HR, 3.72 FIP
In addition to those numbers, he also posted a sparkling .292 xwOBA for Washington, down from .332 for the A’s — and MLB reliever average is .314, so that drop is the difference between good and bad. For the Nats, he converted 19-of-22 save/hold chances, which is a strong success rate.
In other words, Rodney’s work for Washington is exactly what Oakland was hoping to get out of him. Not a star closer or anything, but a serviceable arm who can help out in some late-inning spots when needed. Last winter the A’s gambled that Rodney had more left in the tank, and it turns out they were right. If you want your explanation for why they would commit that kind of money to this particular player, there you go. Turns out he’s still a fine pitcher, and Oakland sure could have used his Nats performance in their own leaky pen this summer.
For some context, here are a couple other veteran relievers. One is Joakim Soria, whom the A’s paid even more money last winter to be their setup man. The other is Shawn Kelley, the guy whom I personally would have suggested spending the money on if they hadn’t picked up Rodney’s option. (Cherry-picking only Rodney’s numbers from Washington.)
Rodney: 4.05 ERA, 3.72 FIP, .292 xwOBA, 19-of-22 save/holds
Soria: 4.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP, .286 xwOBA, 17-of-22 save/holds
Kelley: 4.94 ERA, 5.52 FIP, .359 xwOBA, 17-of-21 save/holds
There’s an argument that Rodney is the best on that list, or at least tied with Soria. Kelley turned out to be mostly a bust. Of course, it’s not this simple — Rodney’s time with the A’s still counts, so really his full-season numbers include a 5.66 ERA and 4.28 FIP, and he also fared worse with inherited runners than Soria or Kelley did. But for the four months he spent with his current team, he was the solid arm the A’s thought they were keeping last winter.
All that said, there is still a lesson to be learned here. The A’s were right that Rodney wasn’t cooked, but they still got yet another first-hand look at the pure randomness of relievers. We often cite the year-to-year fluctuations, but this was more like month-to-month, with the same guy being both the worst and totally fine within the same individual season.
The moral of the story is to stop spending significant money on relievers. There just doesn’t seem to be much correlation between cost and production, as every year we see expensive, established names explode while a new list of minimum-salary nobodies breaks out and plays great. Sure, some of the stars stay good long-term, but you’re probably not going to guess which ones nor exactly when that consistency will come to a crashing halt.
The mistake the A’s made wasn’t keeping Rodney last winter. They lost that gamble, but it proved to be a reasonable bet in the end. The mistake was spending $5 million on the guy expected to be their fourth- or fifth-best reliever, whatever his name might be. That’s a roster spot that a budget-conscious team needs to fill much cheaper.
In the meantime, Oakland is out and Rodney is playing for a ring, alongside teammates Sean Doolittle and Kurt Suzuki. The only other time that Rodney went to the Series was in 2006, with the Tigers team that swept the A’s out of the ALCS — but Detroit fell short of the title that year, so the 42-year-old has a chance to earn his first championship.
This saga reminds me another recent former Athletic, utilityman Chris Coghlan. The A’s picked him up from the Cubs entering 2016, and in 51 games he batted .146 with a 29 wRC+ and negative defense. His value graded out as minus-1.6 bWAR and minus-1.2 fWAR, in only 172 plate appearances. But in June the A’s shipped him back to the Cubs, where he bounced back, batted .252 with a 112 wRC+, and posted 0.9 WAR on both scales in just 48 games. That October, he started Game 1 of the World Series and eventually won a ring. He went from being the worst player in the majors to a being a champion in just a few months.
Baseball just loves to keep us guessing.