By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – Gracious as can be, Cubs reliever Hector Rondon stood before the camera lights and microphones to accept his lesser role. It was a year ago Tuesday that the Cubs traded for closer Aroldis Chapman, a key acquisition brought in to help lead them to a championship.
Despite how strong Rondon had been all of 2016, the Cubs wanted that dominant late-game force to close out victories. Chapman entered the picture, and Rondon stood there at his locker stall and said all the right things.
Though his words were encouraging, his mind wasn’t right after the move. Rondon was being demoted – evicted from the penthouse of bullpen roles and moved to lower grounds. What has followed in the year since is mostly disappointing, with Rondon recording a 5.30 ERA (4.36 FIP) in 52 2/3 innings since the trade.
“That’s a little bit on your mind, when you have that (closer) role and they move you to a different spot,” Rondon said Tuesday. “That took time to figure out, because the way you pitch, the way you prepare — it’s tough.”
The faith of manager Joe Maddon dwindled in Rondon late last season as he struggled coming back from an August triceps injury. Rondon was used little in the postseason, with Chapman instead taking on the bulk of late-game innings.
Maddon’s faith in Rondon has come around as of late, despite his struggles for consistency this season. Rondon has a 4.42 ERA (3.66 FIP) in 38 2/3 innings. Rondon has been well aware of where that number stands.
What’s inspiring Maddon to keep using Rondon is the velocity uptick as of late.
“Rondon is really exciting right now,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing 100 miles an hour. He’s averaging 97 – turning into a different FM station; 97.4 right now.”
Maddon is exactly on with his tracking of that velocity. Rondon is back to throwing electric stuff. So what has worked against him?
There has been a bit of bad luck, as indicated by that 3.66 FIP and a .300 batting average on balls in play coupled against a hard contact rate (28.4 percent) near the career norm of 26.4. He’s at peace with throwing a good pitch and getting hit, but Rondon has also been hindered by entering with a messy situation as opposed to starting an inning with a clean slate, like he did in his old role as a closer.
Rather than looking to blow hitters away, Rondon is often trying to pitch into the zone. He has mostly eliminated the sinker from his arsenal, relying heavily on that fastball and slider – the four-seam fastball especially when effectiveness is required.
The confidence movement for Rondon is clear with his approach.
“I feel like in the ninth inning, you have to be more aggressive — like a pitcher,” Rondon said. “You have to be more aggressive. If you make your pitch, you’ll be fine. But in (middle) innings, the hitters become more aggressive. I think that’s the difference. You have to make a pitch, and sometimes you have to be smart to pitch some guys, too. I think that’s the difference between being a closer and being a different guy.
“Some days, you come and you’re pounding the zone and the confidence is there. Some days, you come and they got you. The confidence has to be the same. I don’t need to be anything, just play.
The Cubs gave up a haul for Chapman a year ago, sending prized shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres and three other pieces, including two prospects, to the Yankees. It was a move that was intended to put the Cubs over the top. Maddon has often said that they wouldn’t have won the World Series without Chapman, whose value increased more with the inconsistencies to Rondon.
By making the move, the Cubs consequently hurt Rondon, whose dissension is marked clearly by the date of Chapman’s arrival. The team continues to show its faith with the hopes that he can deliver big outs late in the game once again.
Getting Rondon back to where he once was is now an ongoing process, one that starts with the pitcher’s own head.
“I got to a point where I didn’t have anything to lose,” he said. “Just pound it and throw it.
“Right now, I feel really good and my mind is clear.”