K-Rod survives on art of deception

Tigers' new closer can still bring the heat when needed

K-Rod survives on art of deception

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The right-field video board that used to reside at Joker Marchant Stadium is gone, a casualty of the new Tigers clubhouse and offices being built. For this year, the score is shown on an old-school digital board that can require squinting to read. The numbers are smaller than the digits on the radar gun board next to it.

So for this spring, the fastball is bigger than the score, much to the chagrin of manager Brad Ausmus.

"People get so enthralled with the radar gun," Ausmus said. "They think you have to throw hard to get outs. Pitching is pitching. You still have to hit your spots. You still have to change your speeds."

Ausmus' new closer hasn't lit up a radar gun in a while, but by changing speeds, Francisco Rodriguez still gets outs, often big ones. That's why he's still in baseball, and why he's here, closing on a contender.

Rodriguez earned the K-Rod nickname when he was one of the harder throwers in the game, armed with a mid-90s fastball. Those days are gone, yet the 34-year-old remains one of the game's top closers.

Rodriguez's fastball averaged less than 90 mph last year for the first time in his 14-year career, yet he put up 38 saves and enjoyed the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any full season. Rodriguez doesn't need to throw hard anymore so much as he needs to throw hard enough.

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Two outings into this spring, he's getting there.

"Right now, I can throw 87-88 [mph], something like that," said Rodriguez, who topped out at 89 mph in a scoreless frame during Tuesday's 10-6 win over the Braves. "To be more consistent at 90-91, 92-93 at times when I have to reach back, with a changeup at 80, that's a big gap in between."

Give Rodriguez that gap, and he can pitch. He can throw his changeup and leave hitters swearing they're seeing the fastball as the ball leaves his hand. Not until they're swinging do they realize the difference.

"He's just got real good arm action on that changeup," Ausmus said, "and he's got the ability to throw it in areas that the hitter bites on it. Sometimes it even works as a power change, where it's harder and the depth is what gets them more than the change of velocity."

Rodriguez says he can throw two, sometimes three different changeups, each with different movement.

"It depends on the hitter," Rodriguez said. "If there's a righty, I want the ball to go straight down. If it's a lefty, I want the ball to tail away. What I'm trying to do is not pitch the same pitch in the whole at-bat. I want them to make the adjustment. So that's the advantage that I've got working for me right now."

Rodriguez has one more advantage: He can take what he sees from a hitter in an at-bat and adjust his game plan. For him, the scouting report isn't as important as what he sees in the box.

"I developed the instinct to read hitters," Rodriguez said. "So I go by their swings. I go by the hitting situation, what they're trying to do, whether they want to walk, whether they're tracking pitches or if they just want to take to swing."

That, Ausmus said, is pitching.

"Sometimes I wish there had never been a radar gun invented, quite frankly," Ausmus said. "The radar gun doesn't mean anything. The hitters will let you know how well you're throwing."

That doesn't mean Rodriguez doesn't miss the old fastball. He says he needs to throw around 90 mph or above to be at his best. Asked what he'd like to throw, he smiles.

"I'd like to throw 100 like Bruce [Rondon]," Rodriguez chuckled.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.