As the playoffs and award season gets underway, we want to take a gander at some players who had outstanding seasons in 2009 but whose teams ended up just shy of making the postseason and who will (most likely) not pick up any fancy trophies. Quite a consolation prize: a round of golf and a write-up on a low circulation sports blog.
Next up, Wandy Rodriguez, as written by Eric Nusbaum of Pitchers and Poets.
The Astros didn't finish "just shy" of the postseason. But they did finish only four games back of Cincinnati! And who do they have to thank for that? Lance Berkman? Roy Oswalt? I think not. They were carried to 74 wins by one Wandy Fulton Rodriguez.
The pitcher called Wandy entered 2009 with - at their most optimistic - manageable expectations. Win a dozen games, eat some innings, and try to do something about the eternally forlorn look on your oddly youthful face. But at thirty years old, Wandy did more than fill the middle of a middling rotation. He was (very, very quietly) one of the best left handed starters in baseball.
Before delving into the quirky awesomeness of the Magic Wandy (nickname per wikipedia), here are some 2009 numbers: 205.2 innings pitched; 193 strikeouts to 63 walks; an era+ of 138; and for the sabr-literate folks out there, Wandy's wins above replacement was 4.0, or fifth among all left-handed starters. Better lefty WAR numbers came only from sirs Lee, Lester, Sabathia, and Kershaw. In 20th century baseball, that's 14-12 3.02.
In all likelihood, Wandy is very near his ceiling; otherwise he has already busted his oddly shaped head against it. Back in May, Eric Seidman argued on FanGraphs that it's unlikely Wandy will ever become Mark Buehrle. Well no, but who said he has to be? In every season since he burst forth from the depths of Houston's farm system wielding his magic curveball, Wandy has improved markedly. It's alright to not pitch with robotic consistency, especially if you're still improving into your late twenties and thirties. A little history lesson:
Wandy showed up in 2005, went 10-10 with an unprintable era, and even managed to lose a game one of the World Series in a so-so relief appearance for Roger Clemens. 2006 was summarily awful as well, but 2007 saw signs of something special. His K/BB ratio jumped from around 1.5 his first two seasons to 2.55, and his era dropped well over a run to 4.20. Had he stayed healthy in 2008, somebody might have written this article then. But alas, Wandy's season was cut short by injury despite improvements in basically every category known to man.
Then came 2009 and the quiet but undeniable effectiveness. So how did Wandy improve so much? Why did he do so well this year? One theory is the presence of a new catcher in Pudge Rodriguez. In one interview, Wandy claimed that Pudge helps by giving him a "big target." Helpful, but maybe not quite the mind-blowing wisdom those veteran gold-glove catchers are supposed to impart. Plus, Wandy came up with Brad Ausmus, who is by no means a slouch when it comes to handling a glove and a pitching staff.
Did his stuff get suddenly better? Not really. Wandy has a single exceptional pitch: one of those crazy swooping left handed curveballs that won Barry Zito a Cy Young award and once allowed Kazuhisa Ishii to win 14 games as a rookie despite leading the NL in walks. Otherwise, he started throwing a changeup more often and more effectively this year. Listed at 5-11 and 160, it's no shock that his fastball isn't blowing any minds.
So what it comes down to is that in 2008 and especially 2009, Wandy Rodriguez threw strikes. He walked fewer batters and struck out more. It's impossible to say whether his performance will continue to improve, or whether Wandy has reached a plateau. But no signs point to any kind of a slowdown. It isn't a fluke. He might be 30, and he might never be a star (or Mark Buehrle for that matter), but the man deserves, if not effusive praise, America's begrudged respect. There's a pitcher called Wandy in Houston. Take note.