Prospect Retro: Wandy Rodriguez
Wandy Rodriguez went 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA and a 193/63 K/BB in 206 innings for the Houston Astros last year. Wandy Rodriguez was never more than a Grade C or C+ prospect in the minors. How did this happen? Let's find out.
Wandy Rodriguez was signed by the Astros out of the Dominican Republic in 1999. He signed using a false name, "Eny Cabreja." The Houston Chronicle did a great story on Rodriguez and his background back in 2008. He came from an impoverished area, and signed for $5000, big money for his family.
Rodriguez (still known as Cabreja) made his North American debut with Martinsville in the Appalachian League in 2001, going 4-3, 1.58 with a 67/20 K/BB in 74 innings, with 54 hits allowed. He ranked second in the Appy League ERA hunt, but wasn't considered a top prospect due to a mediocre fastball. I didn't write about many short-season players back then, but would have rated him as a Grade C or maybe a C+ at the time, "pending higher level performance data" or some such disclaimer.
Still using the name Eny Cabreja, Rodriguez continued to pitch well at Class A Lexington, posting an 11-4, 3.78 mark with a 137/44 K/BB in 159 innings, with 167 hits allowed. Again, he wasn't rated as a hot prospect; he didn't throw hard, but got people out because he changed speeds well and had a good curve. I gave him a Grade C in my 2003 book, noting that we needed to see him at higher levels since he wasn't a hard thrower.
Rodriguez confessed to his true name and age in the spring of 2003, but the Astros kept him in the organization since he'd pitched well. Promoted to Salem in the Carolina League for '03, he went 8-7, 3.49 with a 72/41 K/BB in 111 innings, 102 hits allowed. His K/IP slipped, down to 5.8 from 7.7 the year before, and his walk rate went up as well. With his true age (24) now revealed, he didn't look like much of a prospect to me, given the slippage in his ratios, and I didn't put him in the 2004 book.
Moved up to Double-A Round Rock in 2004, Rodriguez went 11-6, 4.48 with a 115/57 K/BB in 143 innings, 159 hits allowed. His strikeout rate went back up, but so did his walk rate and he was rather hittable. Again, he didn't show up on many prospect lists, absent from both my book and Baseball America's. I saw him pitch that summer and he looked like maybe a Quadruple-A guy to me, mediocre fastball, decent curve, not great command. He'd still be a Grade C. He did get added to the 40-man roster that off-season.
Rodriguez began '05 in Triple-A and pitched well (4-2, 3.69 with a 48/16 K/BB in 46 innings), then ended up spending most of the season in the Astros rotation, going 10-10, 5.53 with an 80/53 K/BB in 129 innings, 135 hits allowed. He was similarly stinky in 2006, but began taking a step forward in '07 with an improved strikeout rate (7.8 K/9 compared to 6.5 the year before). In 2008 he was above average (3.54 ERA, 131/44 K/BB in 137 innings, 136 hits), and you know what he did last year.
In his major league career, Rodriguez is 51-52, 4.33 with a 660/285 K/BB in 790 innings. His K/IP ratio has actually improved the last two seasons, 8.5 K/9 being a better mark than anything he ever did in the minors. His FIPs have improved along with his ERAs, so I don't think the last two years are a good-luck fluke.
According to Fangraphs and Pitch F/X, Wandy's velocity has been creeping up the last three seasons, increasing from 89.3 MPH in 2007 to 90.1 MPH last year. That may seem like a small change, but it's somewhat unusual for pitchers to gain velocity as they age. His peaks are increasing, too, he worked as high as 93-94 MPH last year, much higher than the 86-88 marks he put up in most of his minor league career. His curveball is very effective, and the increase in his fastball velocity has given him just enough of an extra edge.
Rodriguez is now 31 years old. His development curve has been unusual, and he's become a much better pitcher than his minor league track record would indicate. I don't really have an explanation for it, other than weird things happen with pitchers sometimes. This is a good example of how a Grade C pitching prospect can still develop into something very interesting.