Nearly four weeks into the season, Henry Rodriguez leads Nationals relievers with a 3.24 ERA. If you’ve watched Rodriguez pitch any over the past years, particularly from mid-May on last season, that last sentence might seem baffling. Rodriguez has been the unknown of the Nationals bullpen, a flame-throwing right-hander capable of jaw-dropping greatness with a baseball but also utterly head-scratching wildness.
Something inside of Rodriguez, however, has clicked early this season. His biggest enemy is still his own command — which has led to six walks in 8 1/3 innings — but five of his past six appearances have been scoreless. In his last outing on Tuesday, he needed only 10 pitches to get three outs, so efficient that Manager Davey Johnson asked him throw a second inning for the first time since 2011. He did and walked one and struck out two.
Rodriguez, 26, has returned slowly from elbow surgery last August to clean up a bone spur and arthritis, pain that bothered him for more than a year and a half. He didn’t play winter baseball in Venezuela like he normally would and was slowed by tightness in his arm, which he said still lingers but has improved daily. A big reason for his early success, he said, is that he is more relaxed.
Last season, his dominant spring earned him the closer’s job when Drew Storen and others fell to injury. He was unhittable in April before his command betrayed him, and the stress of closing exacerbated struggles. When Rodriguez struggled, he looked at times shaken on the mound. The opposite has been the case this month.
“I’ve throwing, like they say, as if it doesn’t matter what happens,” he said in Spanish. “It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I worry less and don’t focus so intently on the job. Just letting it flow. … You always want to do well and you want to give your best. I want to do well. Maybe I used to push and stress myself more. Now I can do well without doing that.”
The most noticeable difference in Rodriguez has been his velocity. When he registered lower radar gun readings on his fastball than normal this spring, throwing 95 to 97 miles per hour instead of 98 to 100 mph, building arm strength was the biggest reason. He suggested then, however, that his long-time goal of throwing 100 mph as a budding prospect wasn’t exactly necessary anymore. He could get outs by easing back a few ticks.
Although it’s still early and velocities normalize in coming weeks, Rodriguez has averaged 95.9 mph on his fastball compared to 97.6 mph last season and 98 mph in 2011.
“There are some things you to experiment with and not strain yourself so much,” he said. “Maybe, for now, I’m trying to throw as many strikes as I can and if I keep this up, maybe little by little the velocity was increase or it’ll stay the same or drop. … I want to feel that I’m in control and not throwing so hard. The force will come with time.”
Another aspect of Rodriguez’s pitching that has altered slightly this season is his pitch selection. He has thrown less fastballs (67.1 percent compared to 76.4 percent last season) and more curveballs (22.6 percent compared to 17.6 percent) and change-ups (10.3 percent versus 5.9 percent). (Because he throws his curveballs so hard, Pitchf/X data identifies them as sliders.)
“I’ve been here for three years and batters know I throw hard,” he said. “And I want to surprise them. Something different.”
“He’s getting there where he’s starting to feel stronger and more comfortable and he doesn’t have to really hump up to throw it high 90s,” Johnson added. “But what I do like is he’s coming in and pitching more. He’s using more offspeed stuff. He threw some great curveballs [Tuesday] and the time before he used his change-up real well. He’s nasty when he’s getting more than one pitch over.”