The dictionary defines a right hand man as “someone who helps you with your work and who you can depend on”.
Twenty three year-old Detroit Tiger flamethrower Bruce Rondon certainly meets the first qualification, as he launches his 100+ mph fastballs from the right side.
In his brief major league career, he has also shown the ability to help the Tigers with their work, as he flashed brilliance last year as a rookie.
However, to qualify as an authentic right hand man, he must be dependable. Though Tiger hopes are high that Rondon can own the eighth inning and turn the game over to new closer Joe Nathan, that part hasn’t been established yet.
Let’s take a look at Rondon’s 2013 numbers, his repertoire, and his strengths and weaknesses.
Opp Avg. .259
Rondon’s primary pitch is a four-seam fastball, which he throws about two thirds of the time. It averages 98-99 mph, and tops out at 103. He also throws a slider and a change-up. (You know you have outlier stuff when the speed of your 90 mph change-up exceeds that of your 88 mph slider). That slider can be especially devastating for hitters, who naturally have to start their swing earlier than usual to give themselves half a chance to catch up with Rondon’s heater.
If there is reason for optimism in the Tiger bullpen (aside from Joe Nathan), it is personified by Bruce Rondon. A product of the sometimes maligned Tiger farm system, the Venezuelan was signed in 2007 and possesses one of the finest pure arms in baseball.
Frequently piercing the century mark with his scalding fastball, Rondon pitches in rarefied air. Aside from the Cincinnati Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, no one consistently maintains such high velocity. He is a bona fide flamethrower, as reflected in his combined 12 K/9 rate at Toledo and Detroit last year.
Rondon got off to a shaky start in 2013, as he was unable to secure the closer’s job in spring training due to control issues. He began the season in Toledo, and did not log meaningful innings for the big club until July.
Rondon pitched well that month and even better in August. His effectiveness extended into early September, highlighted by a dramatic strikeout of David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox on September 2nd.
Unfortunately, Rondon experienced elbow soreness following that outing and was shelved for the following three weeks. He returned with a vengeance in late September, where in one inning of work he whiffed three middle-of-order Minnesota Twins hitters in his most impressive appearance of the year.
Following that outing, though, Rondon’s elbow tightness returned and he was wisely shut down for the season. Though there were rumblings regarding his prospective return during the playoffs, they never materialized. With that the Tiger prospects for a return to the World Series took a direct hit.
The good news for Tiger fans is Rondon has been cleared to resume throwing as of December and his elbow problem, at least at this point, appears to be in the rear-view mirror.
Rondon’s weaknesses are two-fold.
For one, as a professional he has shown a lack of control.
Although this is not unusual for young fireballers, it’s clear to become an effective MLB reliever, Rondon will have to reduce his historical BB/9 ratio.
In 2011, at Class A West Michigan, he yielded an eye-popping 7.65 BB/9. That number was reduced to a still high combined 4.41 BB/9 at three minor league stops in 2012.
Encouragingly, Rondon continued to progress with his control in 2013, and posted a 3.70 BB/9 ratio in a combined 58 innings pitched with Toledo and Detroit. This is more in line with an effective power pitcher’s profile. For comparison purposes, Craig Kimbrel, the elite Atlanta Braves’ power-pitching closer, had a BB/9 ratio of 6.97 in his first year in the majors (2010). Aroldis Chapman’s was 7.38 (2011). By 2013, Kimbrel’s BB/9 had dropped to 2.69, while Chapman’s was 4.10.
Of course the Tigers would like to see Rondon’s free passes continue to trend downwards, but his progress in 2013, if maintained, is more than acceptable for a power pitcher of his ilk. Were he to further reduce his BB/9 ratio in the direction of Kimbrel (who is 2 and 1/2 years older than Rondon) without compromising his power arsenal, he would no doubt become an elite closer.
The elbow problems experienced by Rondon in September comprise the second concern.
The Tigers obviously recognize Rondon’s importance to the team going forward, and will not do anything to jeopardize his long-term health. The fact remains, though, the elbow problems which surfaced at age 22 during Rondon’s first year in the majors are troubling. Due to the ineffable nature of arm-related problems in general, it may be a temporary, isolated occurrence or a sinister sign of things to come. One need only conjure up the spirit of former Tiger Joel (“Zoom Zoom”) Zumaya to revisit how quickly and brutally power pitchers can be emasculated.
Detroit partisans can only hope Rondon’s style of heat is equatorial in nature, which is to say smothering and persistent, and not merely an ephemeral hot spell that leaves town shortly after arrival.
The Bottom Line
The perfect scenario for the Tigers is an injury-free Bruce Rondon who refines his control while maintaining dynamic stuff.
(Since it’s February, let’s go with that…….)
In doing so, he’ll regularly nail down the eighth inning for the Tigers while becoming an invaluable set-up man. Which will make him:
Right-handed, helpful, and dependable.
A true Right Hand Man.
And if Rondon fulfills these expectations according to plan, no doubt he’ll inherit the closer’s job from Joe Nathan in 2016.
In which case he’ll need a Right Hand Man of his own.
Would somebody please get Corey Knebel on the phone?