Chicago Cubs’ closer Hector Rondon is off to an incredible start in 2016, even though he has been called upon somewhat infrequently for a surging Cubs squad. Rondon has improved each year since coming over to Chicago as a Rule 5 draft pick in 2013, and with some changes to his approach, Rondon is making 2016 look like a career year.
After posting a 1.67 ERA in 2015, it’s definitely tough to see 2016 being career-best, but over just 10.1 innings so far, Rondon has not walked a single batter, en route to a 0.87 ERA and a sparkling -0.21 FIP. With impeccable control, Rondon has allowed just a 5.6% LD%, compared to 20+% the last three years, turning most line-drives into fly balls, while maintaining a consistent GB% around 50%. But interestingly, Rondon is hardly inducing any soft contact in the process.
Rondon predominately throws both a 4-seam and 2-seam fastball, (as well as a slider), but this year, Rondon has stayed away from his 2-seamer in favor of his 4-seam fastball, especially against LHB. Rondon doesn’t throw a bad sinker/2-seamer, but it could run too far over the plate at times, leading to a 20% HR/FB rate in 2015. Batters have also made an increasing amount of contact against it in the strike zone over the last three years. Maybe Rondon saw this as reason enough to move away from it.
If we compare Rondon’s 4-seam fastball zone breakdowns from 2015 and 2016, we’ll see that Rondon has tried to keep the ball low and away from both RHB and LHB in 2016.
(2015 on the left, 2016 on the right, vs. LHB)
(2015 on the left, 2016 on the right, vs. RHB)
It is certainly too early to be confident that things have truly changed, but Rondon has not worked up in zone much yet. He has tried to pound the low-and-away corner to all batters, and through just 69 pitches, Rondon’s 4-seam fastball has induced groundballs at a 63.6% rate.
Though its fly ball rate is up a bit from last year, batters are hitting line drives on only 9.1% of fastballs they put in play, which can account for some portion of Rondon’s low BABIP; despite generating soft contact only 5.6% of the time and hard contact 44.4% of the time, overall, Rondon has only allowed a .222 BABIP (.276 career average). More potential evidence of batters struggling to adjust to Rondon is the fact that just 11.1% of balls in play have gone to center field (36.7% career average), with 50% of balls going to the opposite field (29.3% career average).
Since Rondon is throwing many more first-pitch 4-seam fastballs, with a Zone% up more than 10% from last year to 63.8%, this has lead to an incredible 77.1% first-pitch strike rate. Being in the zone so consistently may be what is dragging Rondon’s O-Swing% down to 18.4% from the 31.7% mark he posted in 2015. Batters may try to be selective against Rondon when they can, but from an 0-1 count, they often don’t have any option but to protect the plate.
Rondon has kept with his fastball ahead in the count to LHB, and has gone to his slider ahead in the count to RHB, while phasing the 2-seamer out in all situations. It seems that by moving away from the 2-seamer, Rondon has actually become less predictable, using his 4-seam fastball to better set up his slider, dropping his slider’s O-Contact% exactly 25% down to 14.3% so far in 2016. Though his slider’s SwStr% has not increased, Rondon has gotten strikes when it counts, posting a 60% K% over 44 sliders thrown.
Last year, Rondon started ABs with a 4-seam fastball 35% of the time to both LHB and RHB, and started ABs with a 2-seamer 39% of the time against LHB and 15% of the time against RHB. When he had 2 strikes on a lefty, Rondon went to his slider 44% of the time.
This year, Rondon’s first-pitch 4-seam fastball percentages are up to 50% vs. LHB and 61% vs. RHB. With two strikes on LHB, Rondon has thrown a slider just 18% of the time, and instead Rondon has gone to his fastball 45% of the time. Against RHB with two strikes, Rondon has just about ditched his 2-seamer entirely, dividing its use into more 4-seam fastballs and sliders, while using both as out-pitches. It is possible, or even likely, that Rondon changed his approach just radically enough that the league is struggling to catch up.
While neither his O-Swing% nor SwStr% has increased overall, Rondon has been able to strike out more batters by staying in the zone (56.0% Zone%) after jumping out in front with first-pitch strikes, and limiting the slider’s appearances against LHB seems to have increased its effectiveness. It appears that another year of Hector Rondon has come with yet another improvement.
Between 2013 and 2014, Rondon lowered his BB/9 from 4.12 to 2.13 by throwing more 4-seamers to RHB. Between 2014 and 2015, Rondon refined his slider, sacrificing some horizontal movement for (more positive) vertical movement. And between 2015 and 2016, it appears that Rondon has developed a game plan that doesn’t rely on pure stuff. We’ve seen Rondon evolve as a pitcher since making his debut, and 2016 does not look to be the year he plateaus.
By leaning heavily on a powerful fastball and keeping his secondary pitches in his back pocket, Rondon and his repertoire may wind up as a textbook example of addition by subtraction.
Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net
Images thanks to: intheivy.com, MLB.com, Chicago Tribune, Fox Sports