Predictive analysis of baseball statistics is an art, and there are very few well-accepted rules and principles. Even still, common sense dictates that it’s ridiculous to read too much into one performance. So to compare Rubby de la Rosa to an MLB star based on 10 electric fastballs in the 9th inning of a 15-10 Houston shootout would be simply outlandish. But, hey, why not?
De La Rosa’s pitch speed was touted as his single best attribute when he arrived in Boston as part of the package traded from LA in the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett deal. He was coming off Tommy John surgery, but the list of pitchers to match or surpass their pre-surgery velocity upon their return is too long to post. Below is a sampling of stats from De La Rosa’s 2011 campaign (he missed a full season to surgery, except for one brief appearance in 2012:
Rubby (pronounced “Ruby,” as in red) was used primarly as a starter in his rookie season with Los Angeles, and drew comparisons to Pedro Martinez due to his height (5’11”) and also due to his sizzling fastball and wicked changeup. In fact, the Sox hired Pedro as a Special Assistant this spring to work specifically with De La Rosa, and Pedro raved about the 24-year old’s prospects. Clearly, Rubby has the “stuff” to be a top-end starter: the average velocity on his fastball was 95.4 MPH in 2011, which would rank third in the majors this year (behind Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg) amongst qualified starters. While De La Rosa has worked as a starter with Pawtucket in 2013, the organization has made it clear to manager John Farrell that he can use De La Rosa with the big-league club in whichever bullpen capacity is necessary to win.
While there were many noteworthy aspects in Tuesday’s outing, Rubby impressed me most with the command he showed with his fastball while managing to maintain his velocity. De La Rosa threw all of his pitches — fastball, changeup and slider — and racked up strikeouts on his slider and fastball. His ability to get ahead in the count allowed him to vary the speed of his pitches over the course of his outing on nearly ever pitch:
The ability to stay in a pitcher’s count makes his pitch selection more unpredictable for the batter, allowing him to capitalize on the exceptionally low 63.9% contact percentage he generates when he throws his changeup. Also, his fastball was simply electric in his Sox debut: he managed 2 swinging strikes on the pitch that he threw, on average, at 98.17 MPH. If he managed to keep that velocity for the remainder of the year, he would vault directly to the top of the leaderboard for relievers’ average velocity, surpassing Cincinnati’s Ardolis Chapman and Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera. De La Rosa also warmed in the pen on Sunday afternoon with the Red Sox leading 4-0, but Farrell deemed the situation too “high leverage” to bring him in. Finally, in front of a nearly empty stadium during a 15-10 slugfest, Rubby made the most of his first opportunity to pitch for the Sox.
Those who watched the 2002 Angels-Giants World Series remember an energetic young Venezuelan by the name of Francisco Rodriguez.
Much like Rubby De La Rosa, K-Rod burst onto the scene in the Angels bullpen late in the season; he made his major league debut on September 18th, 2002, which is more than five weeks later in the season than De La Rosa debuted for the Sox in 2013. In 2002, Rodriguez pitched in five games before the playoffs, striking out 13 batters while allowing exactly zero runs. He experienced even greater success for the Angels in the playoffs, where he struck out a whopping 28 batters over 11 games while posting a 1.93 ERA. In doing so, he cemented himself as one of the key pieces helping Anaheim to a World Series title. While PITCHf/x data is not available from 2002, K-Rod’s bread and butter consisted of his sizzling fastball coupled with a biting slider. It’s a slightly different arsenal than De La Rosa’s (Rubby’s might be even deeper due to his advanced changeup), but both were clearly gifted with elite power “stuff” as emerging young pitchers.
For those who are weary about how De La Rosa’s arsenal and approach will translate to a late-inning relief role from the starting niche he’s held all year in AAA, consider the following: K-Rod was a struggling starter for Angels single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga in 2001 (the year before his debut), posting a 5.38 ERA and an 11.6 K/9 (while his major league rate over his first three years was 14.59 K/9). In a similar career trajectory to K-Rod, Rubby De La Rosa has yet to truly embrace his potential at Pawtucket in a starting role. Perhaps the transition into a late-inning role is just what he needs — and just what the Red Sox bullpen needs — to become the elite pitcher his “stuff” dictates he should be. So, in a year where the Red Sox are unexpectedly contending for a title, taking a chance on a pitcher like De La Rosa might just be the wild card that pushes them over the edge — hey, it worked for the Angels.
There are a number of risks for both the Sox bullpen and De La Rosa’s development if they decide to convert him to a late-innings reliever. As noted above, one spectacular performance in one game is a small sample size, and De La Rosa can be erratic with his command, especially with his fastball. The last thing a pitcher wants to do in a strikeout situation is to walk a man, particularly when Rubby’s HR/9 rate has not been ideal in Pawtucket (1.06). But the Sox have holes to fill in their injury-depleted bullpen, and you have to think that De La Rosa can fill in better than Pedro Beato or Jose De La Torre due to is elite arsenal of strikeout weapons.
Finally, there are a couple of risks the Sox must consider as they pertain to Rubby’s development as a pitcher. There is a slight bit of concern about re-injuring his surgically-repaired elbow if he slots in during late-inning situations. There is more strain on the arm as a bullpen piece than as a starter because the pitcher throws so much harder over a much shorter period of time in the ‘pen. If the Red Sox truly view De La Rosa as the “next great Pedro”, they’d be kicking themselves if they took the risk of putting him in the bullpen only to see him blow out his elbow again. But, when contending for a title in Boston, sometimes the “now” must precede the “future” in calculated situations. Putting De La Rosa in the ‘pen may be one such risky decision.
Also, if Rubby experiences any sort of failure in a high-leverage situation, it could emotionally ruin the great prospect (think Richie Sexson’s grand slam in Cla Meredith’s forced MLB debut). One must remember, however, that this is not Rubby’s first rodeo: his debut came in 2011 with the Dodgers as a 22-year old and he’s shown a great deal of resiliency already to recover from Tommy John surgery. If I’m manager John Farrell, I consider De La Rosa ready for the limelight right now. I take a chance and stick him in some pressure situations to see if I can’t make lightning strike twice: the 2013 Red Sox version of vintage K-Rod could be the last piece to put Boston over the edge in their contention for the 2013 World Series Championship.