The Curious Case of Sean Rodriguez

By Matthew Kruth, The Burgh Blog Writer, @theburghblog_mk

MIAMI – Monday night Sean Rodriguez hit his sixth home run of the 2016 season. The Pirates certainly didn’t expect to have such an offensively productive season to this point, or at all. So far in 2016, Serperco has put up vastly better numbers as opposed to the numbers he put up just one year ago.

Before getting into Sean Rodriguez’s numbers this season, just remember, we’ve only just finished May, and he only has 91 plate appearances, while he had 240 all of last year.

S-Rod has made a significant impact in beginning of the year. Already, Rodriguez has been worth +1.0 WAR, according to Fangraphs. He’s already exceeded his home run total from last season. He has six so far on the year, and Steamer projects him to hit four more which would put him just one behind his career high. He has a wRC+ of 167, while he’s never had a season higher than 99. So not only has Rodriguez never had an even average offensive season, but this year, he’s 67% above league average production when he’s out on the field.

Here are some more stats that drive home the point that are a little more traditional. Rodriguez has already matched his RBI total from last season at 17. He needs to score only six more times to match his total from 2015. He has walked seven more times than he did all of last year, and he hasn’t hit into a single double play.

So what has been the key to Sean Rodriguez’s turnaround this year? How has he been able to put up the best numbers of his career, by a wide margin, at the age of 31? Sean Rodriguez has never shown the tools and ability to hit this well in his career, so why the sudden change?

*It’s important to note that Sean Rodriguez has not put together a very large sample size yet this year, so his numbers could go back to where people expect them to be pretty quickly.*

The answer to Rodriguez’s success stems from the kind of contact he is generating to this point in the season. The difference in his numbers from 2015 to 2016 is staggering. In 2015, S-Rod had a hard-hit percentage of 26.5%. That was good for 249th of batters with at least 200 plate appearances. That’s about what you may expect from a .240 hitter who’s value comes on the defensive side of the ball. Looking at his 2016 numbers (prepare yourself), Sean Rodriguez is hitting the ball hard 46.9% of the time, good for 4th out of all batters in the majors with 50 or more plate appearances, over 360 batters.

So one may be thinking, just because he’s hitting the ball harder way more often cannot be the whole story, right? That’s true. While Rodriguez has hit a lot more balls hard, he’s also decreased the amount of soft-hit balls by a 10% clip. All of this is just to mention the quality of contact off the bat. What about after he gets ahold of the ball?

Rodriguez has hit the majority of the balls he puts in play in the air this season. His fly ball rate this season is up 16% from last season, and over 7%higher than his best offensive season of his career in 2013. Rodriguez has effectively reduced the number of ground balls he hits this season at nearly the same rate as he’s increased his fly balls. This has lead to a steep increase in power numbers and his ability to hit home runs.

Now all of this could just be a result of Sean Rodriguez just seeing the ball really well to start the season. Some of it could be contributed to the fact that the Pirates as a whole are hitting well and above their levels from last season, and as they say “hitting is contagious.” It could be an offseason change he made to his swing, although it looks nearly the same. Whatever the case, Sean Rodriguez looks like a whole new player at the plate, and whatever he did to get to this point is working. It may not be likely to last, but there is also the chance that this new offensive S-Rod is here to stay, and that would be extremely useful to the team going forward.

In case anybody who reads this article does not understand just how good Rodriguez has been this season, take a look at this:

Player A: .986 OPS, 167 wRC+, .312 ISO
Player B: .948 OPS, 134 wRC+, .303 ISO
Player C: .950 OPS, 142 wRC+, .293 ISO

One of these players in Sean Rodriguez. Can you guess which one? He’s Player A. Okay fine, but that by itself does not really mean a whole lot. Who are the other two batters? Player B is Nolan Arenado, and Player C is non other than Bryce Harper. So when Sean Rodriguez has been playing this year, he has been just generally better offensively, but also hitting for more power, than two of the best young stars in the game.

If Sean Rodriguez can keep these numbers up throughout the rest of the year, he’s going to find himself in the lineup a whole lot more, and he will be an extremely valuable asset Pirates in 2016.

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