SAN FRANCISCO - There are a lot of mysteries in player evaluation, but in 2018, perhaps there was none greater than this: How did the Minnesota Twins, an organization forever in need of more talent, let Dereck Rodriguez get away?
Rodriguez was 25 at the time, with a Hall-of-Fame pedigree, a developing repertoire and solid minor league results. Even Giants people seemed surprised that Rodriguez was available, but they had done their homework and were prepared to chase him the minute he became a free agent. The end result was the best development of the 2018 season.
Rodriguez spent much of his first season in the big leagues as a Rookie of the Year candidate and leader of the rotation. His future looks bright, but before we get there, let's look back on his first season with the Giants …
What Went Right
Rodriguez was an afterthought for much of the spring, but he was sharp in a late-March appearance against the Arizona Diamondbacks, opening eyes on the coaching staff. He then went to Triple-A Sacramento and continued to pitch well, and on May 28, not long before he could opt out, he had his contract purchased. It looked like Rodriguez might serve as temporary depth for the bullpen, and his first appearance was rushed when Jeff Samardzija walked off a mound at Coors Field. Rodriguez threw 3 1/3 intriguing innings out of the bullpen in his debut and never looked back.
In 21 appearances - 19 of them starts - Rodriguez posted a 2.81 ERA, the lowest by a Giants rookie since Hoyt Wilhelm in 1952. He had the seventh-lowest ERA among NL pitchers who threw 100 innings, and until a rough finish in September, he spent much of his season ranking right there with Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola, who will finish second and third for the Cy Young Award.
What stood out most about Rodriguez was his consistency. He became the first Giant to throw at least six innings and allow two runs or fewer in 13 of his first 16 starts, and with a stretch of nine straight such starts, he became just the third rookie in the last 60 years to pull off the feat. Rodriguez didn't have an ERA above 3.95 in any month, and his road ERA (3.05) wasn't far from his home ERA (2.68), which is rare on this staff. Lefties hit him a little better (.706 OPS) than righties (.632) but he doesn't have wild platoon splits.
What Went Wrong
Pitching deep into September for the first time in his career, Rodriguez gave up nine earned over nine innings in his final two starts, which might cost him some down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes. The Giants had him lined up to try and damage the Dodgers' playoff hopes in his final start, but he lasted just three innings in a loss.
There's not much in his splits that's even remotely concerning, but Rodriguez did lose velocity as the season went on. Per Brooks Baseball, his average fastball went down every month, from 94.3 to 93.0 to 92.7 to 91.6 to 91.2. His max fastball dropped about two MPH over the course of the season. This isn't a surprise; it was the longest year of his career, but Rodriguez certainly needs to make sure he's ready for his stuff to hold up for 200 innings next season.
At the plate, Rodriguez was just 3-for-32 with 16 strikeouts. He's a converted outfielder, so the Giants would like to see a bit more in the help-yourself department next season.
Rodriguez signed as a minor league free agent, so he's still years from arbitration and free agency. The Giants will likely give him a small raise next season, but he won't make much more than the MLB minimum.
For nearly his entire rookie season, Rodriguez pitched like an ace. Some of the metrics - a low strikeout rate, 3.74 FIP and 4.56 xFIP - show him as more of a mid-rotation starter.
You could make the argument either way. On one hand, Rodriguez is not overpowering and he benefited from some batted ball luck, so he's probably due for a step back. On the other hand, he's still new to pitching, already has shown a phenomenal feel for his four-pitch mix and all quadrants of the strike zone, and he's got the competitive fire you want to see in a young starter.
There's reason to think he can still develop. Either way, Rodriguez is the best find from Giants scouts and numbers-crunchers in a long time, and he'll line up next season as a strong No. 2 behind Madison Bumgarner. Not much went right for the Giants in 2018, but they found Dereck Rodriguez, and he'll be a big part of the future.