The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Francisco Rodríguez was the October Surprise. As the Angels went on their 2002 postseason run, they introduced a secret weapon out of their bullpen, a 20-year-old Venezuelan righty with an unholy fastball-slider combination and the poise of a grizzled veteran despite him having all of 5.2 major league innings under his belt. Often throwing multiple innings and quickly graduating into a setup role in front of closer Troy Percival, Rodríguez set a number of records, including one for the most strikeouts by a reliever in a single postseason (28) while helping the Angels to their first (and to date only) championship in franchise history.
Though he endured some growing pains at the major league level, by 2004 Rodríguez was an All-Star, and from ’05-08 he led the American League in saves three times, setting a still-standing single-season record with 62 in the last of those campaigns. His mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider befuddled hitters, while his demonstrative antics — “a melange of pirouettes, fist pumps and primordial screams,” as one writer put it — sometimes got under their skin.
Rodríguez cashed in via free agency, signing a three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets, but he was rarely the same pitcher he’d been in Anaheim. He made three more All-Star teams, but was arrested twice, once for assaulting his girlfriend’s father (and tearing ligaments in his thumb in the process) and once for domestic abuse. He pled guilty to the former and attended anger management classes, while the charges for the latter were dropped when the woman left to return to Venezuela. Both incidents likely would have interrupted his career to an even greater degree had they occurred after Major League Baseball and the Players Association adopted its domestic violence policy in 2015.
Inevitably, teams kept paying Rodríguez to pitch, and by the time his 16-year career was over, he ranked fourth on the all-time saves list, behind Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith, and ahead of the five other enshrined relievers. That standing, as well as his number 12 ranking in R-JAWS, makes him this ballot’s only newcomer besides Carlos Beltrán who has a plausible Hall of Fame case, though it doesn’t even guarantee he’ll get enough support to stick around on the ballot.
2023 BBWAA Candidate: Francisco Rodríguez
|Avg HOF RP||39.1||30.1||20.0||29.7|
Rodríguez was born on January 7, 1982 in Caracas, Venezuela. He grew up in poverty in Macarao under the care of his paternal grandparents (Juan Francisco and Isabel Rodríguez), as his parents divorced when he was an infant. His birth mother left when he was just a few months old, and his father came and went, moving out for good by the time he was four. He and anywhere from three to eight uncles and cousins squeezed into the same two-bedroom flat with “Mom and Dad,” while he was estranged from his biological parents.
At age three, young Francisco would watch his uncles — all at least 15 years older, and all baseball fanatics — play for youth league and university teams, imitating the action on the sidelines with his own bat and ball. At age four, he began playing the local equivalent of Little League, and at seven, he was invited to enroll in the Graciano Ravelo Baseball School, a bare-bones academy in Caracas that was founded with the idea of using baseball “to teach kids to become better people,” as a 2002 Los Angeles Times article summarized. Ravelo, a former minor leaguer who would go on to scout for the Rangers, waived the school’s $7 monthly fee, so Rodríguez would ride a train an hour each way three times a week to practice.
By that point, Rodríguez was pitching, impressing onlookers with his arm strength and fearlessly facing off against older kids. When he was 12, he threw a pitch so nasty that the opposing coach protested he was throwing a breaking ball, violating the rules of his youth league. It was a variation of his fastball. As Sports Illustrated’s Stephen Cannella described it in 2002:
In Rodríguez’s natural throwing motion his index and middle fingers roll slightly over the ball as he releases it, almost as if he’s throwing a curve. That unorthodox technique imparts a tight spin on the ball that, when combined with the tremendous velocity he generates, produces a severe cutting movement that sends the ball boring in on left-handed hitters and diving away from righties. “I don’t really throw a slider,” he says. “I just change my arm angle. If I release the ball at a three-quarter angle, it moves like a slider. If I throw over the top, it breaks straight down.”
By the time he was 15, Rodríguez stood 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, topping 90 mph when he pitched and playing shortstop when he didn’t. Ravelo tried to sign him to the Rangers for $120,000, but Rodríguez declined. His stock kept rising; the Braves offered $400,000 after he struck out 14 while pitching for the Venezuelan national team at the Pan-American Youth Championship tournament in Mexico. In September 1998, the Angels outbid the field (which also included the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rockies), signing the 16-year-old Rodríguez for $960,000.
Rodríguez began his professional career with the Butte Copper Kings of the Pioneer League. Working primarily as a starter, he struck out 69 in 51.2 innings while posting a 3.31 ERA. He was similarly dominant at High-A Lake Elsinore the following year; elbow tendinitis limited him to 64 innings but he landed at number 71 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. Though he struck out 11.6 per nine while repeating the level (with a franchise now based in Rancho Cucamonga), he was hit for a 5.38 ERA and struggled with his concentration as well as elbow and shoulder woes. That winter, the Angels decided to move him to the bullpen, believing shorter relief stints would help his concentration.
Rodríguez struck out 120 hitters while posting a 2.27 ERA in 83.1 innings split between Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake City. In mid-September, he got called to the majors and debuted with a scoreless inning of work against the A’s on September 18. He struck out two, including Mark Ellis, to end that appearance; thus began a run of eight straight strikeouts stretching across three additional appearances, tying the franchise record held by Nolan Ryan. In all, Rodríguez struck out 13 of the 21 batters he faced while walking just two (one intentional) and yielding three singles.
Through a little-known loophole, the Angels — who won 99 games and claimed the AL Wild Card spot — were allowed to include Rodríguez on their postseason roster, replacing an injured pitcher (Steve Green) who was eligible for the postseason. He made his postseason debut in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Yankees, winners of four straight AL pennants. Though he gave up a go-ahead home run to Alfonso Soriano, he vultured the win when the Angels rallied for three runs in the eighth inning, thereby becoming the first major league pitcher whose first win came in the postseason. He didn’t allow another run in his next 11 innings as the Angels downed the Yankees and then the Twins; by the end of the ALCS, he had notched five postseason wins, becoming the first pitcher to do so before the age of 21, and tying the single-postseason record set by Randy Johnson the year before. In Game 2 of the World Series, he retired nine straight Giants and became the youngest pitcher to win a game in the Fall Classic, at 20 years and 286 days.
Rodríguez’s postseason scoreless streak ended at 13 innings, and his winning streak ended as well, as he took the loss via an unearned run in Game 4 of the World Series, evening things at two games apiece. He was touched for two runs in Game 6, one via a Barry Bonds home run, but the Angels overcame a 5-0 deficit to force Game 7, and he threw a scoreless eighth before Percival closed the Giants out in the ninth. All told, Rodríguez threw 18.2 innings in 11 appearances during his postseason run, with a 1.93 ERA and 13.5 strikeouts per nine (40%). He acquired a new nickname along the way — K-Rod — and became a celebrity in his home country, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez publicly congratulating him and privately chatting with him on the phone.
That postseason showing vaulted Rodríguez to number 10 on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list, and anticipation for his official rookie season was high. He scuffled early, allowing runs in nine of his first 15 appearances, ballooning his ERA to 5.48, but he rewarded manager Mike Scioscia’s patience by allowing just 30 hits and 16 runs over his final 63 innings, finishing with a 3.03 ERA but just 9.9 strikeouts per nine, a mark he would exceed in each of the next five seasons.
Rodríguez began the 2004 season with 14 consecutive scoreless appearances totaling 17 innings. He filled in for the injured Percival in June, made the AL All-Star team on the strength of a 1.34 ERA in the first half, and finished the year with a 1.82 ERA, 1.64 FIP, 123 strikeouts in 84 innings, and 3.3 WAR. The Angels made it back to the playoffs by winning the AL West, but were swept by the Red Sox in the Division Series; Rodríguez took two of the three losses in relief, though the second time, in Game 3, it was Jarrod Washburn who allowed the series-clinching walk-off two-run homer by David Ortiz.
Still, the Angels had enough faith in Rodríguez to let him take over the closer role when Percival departed in free agency. Though his 2005 season wasn’t his best, he led the AL with 45 saves while helping the Halos win another division title, something they would do in ’07 and ’08 as well. Aided by the team’s propensity for playing one-run games, he led with 47 saves, a 1.73 ERA, and a career-best 3.7 WAR in 2006; made his second AL All-Star team while ranking second in saves (40) in ’07; and demolished Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 saves by saving 62 (in 69 chances) in ’08, a record that still stands. He posted a 2.24 ERA that year, made his third All-Star team, and placed third in the AL Cy Young voting. For the 2005-08 period, he averaged 48 saves with a 2.35 ERA (190 ERA+), 11.6 strikeouts per nine, and 2.6 WAR; during that span, the Angels played 202 one-run games (tied with the A’s for the AL high) and posted a major league-best .564 winning percentage. The Angels only made it out of the Division Series once in that span, losing to the White Sox in the 2005 ALCS.
Fresh off the saves record, Rodríguez signed a three-year, $37 million free agent deal with the Mets, who had coughed up playoff spots due in part to bullpen failures down the stretch each of the past two seasons and had additionally lost closer Billy Wagner to Tommy John surgery. While Rodríguez converted his first 16 save chances as a Met, his streak ended in grisly fashion on June 12 in the Bronx, as second baseman Luis Castillo dropped Alex Rodriguez’s two-out popup in the ninth inning, allowing the tying and winning runs to score. Before the end of the Subway Series, he exchanged heated words with Yankees reliever Brian Bruney, who called his antics on the mound “a tired act.” The two had to be separated before things got physical, but Bruney soon apologized.
Rodríguez kept his ERA below 1.00 until June 18, finished the first half at 1.90, and made the NL All-Star team. But by season’s end, his ERA ballooned to 3.71 and his walk rate to 5.0 per nine, as he blew four of his final 16 save chances. He finished the year with just 0.1 WAR.
Though he cut his walk rate and lowered his ERA to 2.20 in 2010, Rodríguez’s career took an ugly turn on August 11, when he was arrested for assaulting Carlos Peña, the father of his girlfriend. In repeatedly punching the man in the face, he tore ligaments in his right thumb, and the surgery to repair them would have been season-ending had he not already been placed first on the restricted list and then on the disqualified list, means by which the Mets didn’t have to pay him while he was physically unable to perform. He was charged with third-degree assault, second-degree harassment and criminal contempt for sending 56 text messages to his girlfriend in violation of a protection order. He pled guilty to the assault charge and was ordered to attend a year-long anger management program, pay $14,444.65 in restitution for Peña’s medical expenses plus $1,000 to resolve the criminal charges, and abide by a two-year protection order.
Rodríguez returned to the Mets in 2011, and he spent the first half of the season as their closer, but on July 12, they traded him to the Brewers for two players to be named later. In Milwaukee, he was moved into a setup role in front of John Axford, which cost him a shot at vesting a $17.5 million option. He did help the Brewers make the playoffs, after which the team re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal, an exorbitant price for a setup reliever at that time.
The Brewers didn’t get much of a return on that investment, as Rodríguez slipped to -0.2 WAR while posting career worsts in home run rate (1.0 per nine) and ERA (4.38). He was arrested again in September 2012, this time for domestic violence and battery against his fiancée, though news of the arrests didn’t surface until October. Though he was charged with disorderly conduct-domestic abuse (a misdemeanor) via a complaint in which his fiancée reported being struck in the head, grabbed by the hair, thrown, and kicked in the shoulder and thigh before being dragged to his car, the charges were dismissed when she and a member of the household staff who had witnessed the incident left the U.S. to return to Venezuela.
With his legal troubles having cooled the market for his services, Rodríguez returned to the Brewers in mid-April via a minor-league deal. He was recalled on May 16, and soon took over closer duties. He notched 10 saves with a 1.09 ERA — including save number 300 on June 22 against the Braves — before being traded to the Orioles for Nicky Delmonico on July 23. He did not pitch very well in a setup role, serving up five homers in 22 innings.
Rodríguez returned to the Brewers for two more seasons, first via a one-year, $3.25 million deal for 2014, then a heavily backloaded two-year, $13 million deal for ’15-16. He earned All-Star honors in those two seasons in Milwaukee, saving 44 games with a 3.04 ERA and 1.4 WAR in 2014 and then notching 38 saves with a 2.21 ERA and 1.8 WAR in ’15. In November 2015, fresh off a 94-loss season, the Brewers traded him to the Tigers as part of a deal that brought Manny Piña to Milwaukee.
Rodríguez had one more 44-save season in him, and on May 24, 2016, he became the sixth reliever to reach 400 career saves. By the end of the season, he had passed Wagner (422) and John Franco (424) to climb into fourth place on the all-time list.
The Tigers picked up Rodríguez’s $6 million option for 2017, but he pitched badly, and by May 7 had blown four of 11 save chances while getting rocked for an 8.49 ERA. The team released him in late June, and he briefly tried a comeback in the Nationals’ organization, the first of many that didn’t take. He fell short in a bid to make the Phillies’ roster in the spring of 2018, and instead spent the season leading the independent Atlantic League with 27 saves for the Long Island Ducks, a team that also featured such Remembered Guys as Emilio Bonifácio, Lew Ford, Dioner Navarro, and Travis Snider. Still trying to find a path back to the majors, he joined Acereros de Monclova of the Mexican League in 2019 and made 10 appearances in a three-week span but didn’t get any further. Plans to launch a comeback attempt in 2020 were thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rodriguez threw his last pitch in the majors before his 36th birthday. That fact alone makes his path to the Hall of Fame extremely difficult from a historical standpoint. Of the 66 enshrined pitchers whose careers ended after 1960, only four ended in their age-35 season or younger: Sandy Koufax (30), Don Drysdale (32), Catfish Hunter (33), and Bruce Sutter (35), all of whose departures were injury-related. Koufax was elected on the first ballot, but Sutter — the lone reliever of the bunch — took 13 seasons, Drysdale 10, and Hunter three.
The main obstacle for early retirees is generally their low counting stats, and while it’s worth noting that Rodríguez is fourth in saves, save totals alone don’t necessarily drive election. Smith retired as the all-time leader with 478 in 1997 and held that distinction until 2006, but went 0-for-3 in front of BBWAA voters beforehand and 0-for-15 in all before finally being elected on the 2019 Today’s Game ballot. Hoffman, who held the lead from 2006-11, was surpassed only by Rivera but needed three tries to gain entry. Of the two other relievers with 400 saves, Franco went one-and-done with 4.6% in 2011, while Wagner is now in the eighth year of his candidacy, having climbed from 10.5% to 51% over the first seven. Slightly further down the list, 10th-ranked Joe Nathan (377) and 11th-ranked Jonathan Papelbon (368) went one-and-done on the 2022 ballot, the former even with the benefit of this scribe’s vote.
With Sutter the low man in the Hall with his total of 1,042 innings, Rodríguez will likely encounter some resistance given that he pitched only 976 innings. He’s ahead of Wagner (903) on that front, but at a disadvantage to the man he (more or less) replaced in Queens when it comes to several key rate stats:
Francisco Rodríguez vs. Billy Wagner Rate Stats
Obviously, Sutter’s strikeout and walk rates are from another era; normalized, he had a 147 K%+, which ranks 14th among post-1960 relievers with at least 800 innings. Rodríguez is fifth at 159, and Wagner first at 190. Eckersley (third at 165), Smith (sixth at 157), Rich Gossage (eighth at 156) and Hoffman (11th at 150) are all in the range between Wagner and Sutter. K-Rod is the only one of the group besides Gossage with an above-average walk rate, 118 versus Wagner’s 95 and Sutter’s 87.
Head to head with Wagner, Rodríguez is at a 6-to-7 disadvantage in terms of All-Star selections, but he has the much stronger postseason resumé, with a 2.95 ERA in 36.2 innings to Wagner’s 10.03 in 11.2 innings, and he has a 124-107 edge via the Hall of Fame Monitor based mainly on the big save seasons and the postseason stuff. Sutter, a six-time All-Star who won the Cy Young, had a 3.00 ERA in 12 postseason innings in 1982 while helping the Cardinals win it all; he scores just 79 on the HOFM scale, but that doesn’t account for his pioneering roles as the first pitcher to master the split-fingered fastball and the first pitcher whose usage was generally confined to save situations, two key facets of his Hall case.
Rodríguez finished his career with 24.2 WAR (remember, we’re talking about bWAR here), and one thing that’s striking about that total is his career split: 16.0 with the Angels from 2002-08 (2.1 per 60 innings), 8.2 with everyone else from ’09-17 (0.9 per 60 innings). He had five 2-WAR seasons and two 3-WAR seasons with the Halos but never reached even the lower of those two plateaus afterwards, topping out at 1.8 in 2010 and ’11 but slipping to 0.1 WAR or lower three times. By “traditional” reliever JAWS, he ranks just 34th, seven spots below the lowest-ranked Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, and 14 spots below Wagner. By R-JAWS, a hybrid metric that emphasizes leverage by incorporating both WPA and WPA/LI into an average that also includes career WAR (explained in greater detail here), Rodríguez climbs to 12th, ahead of three of the eight enshrined relievers but six rungs below Wagner:
Top Relievers by R-JAWS
|Hall avg w/Eckersley||39.1||30.0||19.9||29.7|
|Hall avg w/o Eckersley||35.8||29.9||19.1||28.3|
R-JAWS is the average of WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI.
+ = Hall of Famer
By this methodology, Wagner is the best reliever outside the Hall, which to these eyes trumps the fact that he’s a bit below the averages of the enshrinees. Rodríguez is further removed from that cluster, an eyelash ahead of Smith and well ahead of Fingers and Sutter. Even with the slight edge in counting stats over Wagner, not to mention the larger postseason impact, he lacks the same level of dominance that makes Wagner’s case so compelling. He’s certainly got some historical significance that helps his cause, but so much of that is from his pre-rookie run in 2002. Pattern-wise, he bears resemblance to Andruw Jones, who homered twice as a 19-year-old during the 1996 World Series and had a great 10-year run (1997-2006) before falling apart in his 30s. But Jones’ number 11 ranking in JAWS is much more impressive given that he’s up against players such as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker from the early 20th century, where Rodríguez is 12th at a position where seven of the eight enshrinees hail from the past half-century. Rodríguez’s off-field issues offer an unfortunate parallel as well. I’ve included Jones on my virtual and actual ballots thus far; for better or worse I have decided not to disqualify candidates based on domestic violence allegations, though I can understand a voter deciding to do so.
Rodríguez wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the Hall of Fame, but right now I’m not terribly inclined to include him on my ballot. Last year I included Nathan due to his proximity to Wagner, less because I was fully convinced he belonged than because I wanted to help him get a second look from voters; it didn’t work. I’m less sure that I’ll try the same tack with Rodríguez, whose case on the advanced stats isn’t as strong, though I haven’t ruled it out. He may still have a shot at sticking around; so far three of the 15 ballots published in the Ballot Tracker have included him (eight have Wagner). We’ll see if he gets another look, both from these eyes and from the voters at large.