Remember Him?

 G       IP      ERA     W     L     SO     BB
11     18.2     1.96     5     1     28      5

That’s what Francisco Rodriguez did in the 2002 postseason. At the age of 20. With 5.2 major-league innings under his belt.

One of the side effects of his incredible postseason run in 2002 is that, when he proved himself to be a mere mortal at times last season, Rodriguez sort of got lost in the shuffle. He started 2003 with a 4.85 ERA in the first two months and really didn’t get a lot of attention all year.

In fact, despite what turned out to be an excellent season after the rough start — 8-3 with a 3.04 ERA in 86 innings — Rodriguez didn’t get a single Rookie of the Year vote. He had some problems serving up long balls, but he was one of the better relievers in the American League as a 21-year-old. Had he not looked like some sort of a pitching god in October of 2002, I think Rodriguez would actually have gotten more hype for his rookie year.

Take a look at what he did after those rough first two months:

IP      ERA     SO     BB      AVG
60     2.25     70     22     .145

That’s right, after May batters “hit” .145 off Rodriguez. One-forty-five. 29 hits in 199 at-bats. I particularly liked June, in which batters went 4-for-48 (.083) against him. Rodriguez still had some problems with the homers after May (nine in 60 innings), but he was about as close to “unhittable” as someone gets without putting on a few pounds, growing a goatee and moving to LA.

In fact, his overall numbers as a rookie compared favorably to what the top, non-Gagne relievers in baseball did last year:

                           IP      AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA     SO/9
Billy Wagner             86.0     .169     .233     .266     .171     11.0
John Smoltz              64.1     .204     .230     .281     .174     10.2
Brendan Donnelly         74.0     .184     .266     .247     .182      9.8
Octavio Dotel            87.0     .172     .251     .301     .188     10.0
Keith Foulke             86.2     .184     .249     .330     .195      9.1
FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ      86.0     .172     .260     .316     .196      9.9
Mariano Rivera           70.2     .235     .271     .300     .197      8.0
Eddie Guardado           65.1     .207     .246     .340     .197      8.3
Troy Percival            49.1     .184     .286     .324     .210      8.8

So far this year, Rodriguez has picked up right where he left off. Through his first 10.2 innings he has 18 strikeouts and two walks, his ERA is 0.00, and opponents are hitting .162 off him. Combined with what he did last year and what he did in his brief stint with Anaheim in 2002 (before the playoffs), Rodriguez currently has the following career numbers:

 G        IP      ERA      SO     BB     HR      AVG      OBP      SLG
73     102.1     2.55     126     39     12     .170     .256     .297

I know this is a vastly overused term, but that is just downright filthy.

Thanks to the wonders of MLB.TV and the MLB Extra Innings package, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Rodriguez several times already this year and he looked absolutely unbelievable each time. He’s been that same unhittable guy from October 2002. My favorite game of his so far was definitely against Oakland on April 17.

Rodriguez came into the game with two outs in the top of the seventh inning and faced four batters:

#1: Eric Karros — strikeout
#2: Erubiel Durazo — strikeout
#3: Bobby Crosby — strikeout
#4: Damian Miller — strikeout

Rodriguez threw a total of 16 pitches, 13 of them for strikes. Of those 13 strikes, some form of contact was made on exactly three of them. He got Karros and Miller swinging and Durazo and Crosby looking.

Rodriguez started Karros off with four straight knee-buckling slurves (it’s not that hard slider he used to throw, but I don’t think it’s quite a normal curve), before blowing a 94 MPH fastball right past him. Rodriguez gave a little fist pump and then stalked off the mound, as if Karros was just some nuisance interrupting his evening.

He started Durazo out with a 92 MPH fastball over the plate, before breaking off a nasty slurve that Durazo swung at and missed by about three feet for strike two. He broke off another breaking ball in the dirt that Durazo took, before painting the outside corner with a 93 MPH fastball that Durazo simply stared at, before turning his back and heading to the dugout.

Bobby Crosby made what I guess would be called the most significant contact, fouling Rodriguez’s first offering into the seats along the third base line. On this night, popping a 94 MPH fastball foul into the fifth row was quite an accomplishment. With Crosby “on” his fastball, Rodriguez threw him a disgusting 81 MPH high breaking ball that literally made Crosby flinch, before landing in Bengie Molina‘s glove for strike two. With the count 0-2, Rodriguez threw another 81 MPH slurve, this time off the plate and diving away from Crosby. The rookie had no chance at it and met the same fate as Karros and Durazo before him.

Rodriguez started Damian Miller off with the same pitch he struck Crosby out on — an 80 MPH breaking ball down and away. Miller tried to check his swing, but couldn’t hold up. 0-1. Another one on the outside corner that Miller just stared at, and it was 0-2. To his credit, Miller fouled off the 0-2 heater that came in on the outside corner at 94 MPH to stay alive, sending it into the seats along the first base line. No matter, Rodriguez dropped an 80 MPH hook down and in and was on his way back to the dugout before Miller even realized just how far from hitting it his swing was.

Four batters, four strikeouts, 16 pitches. Every single one of them either right over the heart of the plate or on the outside corner. Not a single pitch inside. And nothing but fastballs and slurves. Sounds simple enough, right? The A’s could have been using tennis rackets and they wouldn’t have done any better.

I have been a serious baseball fan for about a decade now and I’ve certainly seen my fair share of dominant pitching performances. I’ve seen Pedro and Gagne and Clemens and Johnson and Prior and Maddux and all the other incredible hurlers. I have never seen anyone more dominant than Francisco Rodriguez was in those 1.1 innings on April 17.

When he is on — throwing that blazing fastball for strikes and making batters look completely ridiculous with that insane breaking ball — he is as unhittable as a pitcher could possibly be. The sheer simplicity of it, mixed with the incredible aggressiveness and power, is mesmerizing to watch.

Despite the fact that Barry Bonds showed him who’s boss last week, Eric Gagne is still the King until he proves otherwise against someone with a slugging percentage under 1.000. That said, at 22 years old, Francisco Rodriguez may just be the best relief pitcher in the American League.

That’s a sentence that probably hasn’t been said very often in the history of baseball. The funny thing is that, a couple of Octobers ago, that statement probably wouldn’t have seemed as interesting as it does now.

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