Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez is cooking up a memorable season in bite-sized increments. With 37 appearances, 35 innings and 31 saves in the books, he's ready to take aim at one of the most hallowed and talked-about pitching records in Major League Baseball history.
OK, let's pause for a hyperbole check: If Rodriguez actually does record 58 saves this season, he'll pass a guy that lots of people don't remember. And if it happens at home, he'll go over the top at 1 a.m. EST, a time of night when jewel thieves and street sweepers are doing their best work on the East Coast.
Nevertheless, it's time for the Bobby Thigpen Chase to officially commence.
Los Angeles Angels
It's been 18 years since Thigpen, a former Mississippi State teammate of Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, saved 57 games for the Chicago White Sox. Thigpen drifted to Philadelphia, Seattle and finally Japan before a bad back forced him to retire. And no one, from Mariano Rivera to Trevor Hoffman to Eric Gagne during his California peak, has been able to dislodge him as the single-season save king.
Now Rodriguez is emerging as a threat through a fortuitous set of circumstances. Saves are all about opportunity, and when you combine a low-scoring team that plays a lot of close games with a 26-year-old closer in his prime, it breeds opportunity in abundance.
Rodriguez needs only three more saves for 34, which would tie him with John Smoltz of the 2003 Atlanta Braves for most ever at the All-Star break. He'll try to add to his total this weekend when the Angels play the Dodgers in the interleague Freeway Series at Dodger Stadium.
If Thiggy-mania is sweeping the Angels' clubhouse, it's hard to tell. Angels manager Mike Scioscia and catcher Mike Napoli both gave their best "Geez, that's great" replies when updated on the Thigpen watch. And Rodriguez isn't exactly breathless with anticipation -- yet.
"Let's say it's September and I'm in the low 50s or mid 50s and I know I have an opportunity to break it, then I'll be thinking about it," Rodriguez said. "But not now."
A little time on the national stage is warranted for Rodriguez, who has been a monument to consistency and durability since his arrival in Anaheim six years ago. He's averaged 65 appearances a season as an Angel, and has yet to visit the disabled list. From 2005 through 2007, his 132 saves led the majors.
He's enjoying the type of career everyone envisioned in September 2002, when a precocious kid called "K-Rod" arrived from Triple-A Salt Lake and slid right in as Troy Percival's October bullpen sidekick. Rodriguez went 5-1 in the playoffs and World Series, struck out 28 Yankees, Twins and Giants in 18 2/3 innings, and set a postseason standard for wrenched backs and forlorn looks.
"It took about three appearances before we knew he'd be part of things if we made the playoffs," Scioscia said. "And it took about two outings in the playoffs before we said, 'You know what, this kid is going to pitch deep in the game before Percival.' He wasn't scared and his stuff was electric."
Rodriguez's wattage isn't quite as staggering at age 26 as it was at 20. He's more likely to register 91-93 mph on the radar gun than 96-97 these days, but he's compensating by making the necessary adjustments to his repertoire.
Last year, Rodriguez determined he needed a third pitch for left-handed hitters. So he began tinkering with a changeup, refined it in winter ball back home in Venezuela and now feels secure enough to throw it at any point in the count. Lefties batted .187 against him last season, and they're just a tick better at .204 this year.
Rodriguez fought through ankle injuries early in the season, and he has attained his goal of being more pitch efficient overall even though his command has been spotty at times. Rodriguez's strikeouts are down and his walks are up this year, but he's averaging 16.8 pitches per inning compared to a career-high 17.9 in 2007.
Although Rodriguez looks like the classic maximum-effort guy, the anatomical physics of his motion aren't quite as startling as they appear.
"It probably looks like a high-stress delivery to the naked eye," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "But when you break it down, his arm is in a good slot and there's not a lot of drag. It's a violent-looking delivery, but it works for him and gives him great deception."
Rodriguez's signature pitch remains a curveball that former big leaguer Eric Karros once called the "best right-handed breaking ball I've ever seen." Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, 1-for-10 with five strikeouts against Rodriguez in his previous life as a Twin, confirms that it's more fun to watch the pitch from center field than from the batter's box.
"When I hit against Frankie, I just tried to ambush him," Hunter said. "If you waited too late and got two strikes, you just hoped to foul off that hook. Believe me, it's pretty hard to hit that pitch flush."
Rodriguez is, in some ways, a walking contrast in terms. While meticulous in his preparation and emotionally well-equipped to handle the demands of a stressful job, he is also quick to celebrate on the mound. His flair for fist-pumping and gesturing recently prompted Joe Crede and Brian Anderson of the White Sox to complain publicly about his on-field comportment.
The Angels privately thought that was ridiculous, given that Chicago closer Bobby Jenks isn't exactly a wallflower. Regardless of what opponents say, Rodriguez has no plans to apologize for his demonstrative nature -- or temper his enthusiasm.
"That's my personality and I'm not going to change it," Rodriguez said. "I'm not trying to offend any ballclub, and I'm not trying to show up any hitters at all. That's the intensity I play with. If you don't like it, don't watch it."
In the big picture, the 2008 season matters to Rodriguez for reasons other than the record chase and his postseason aspirations. He will be a free agent in November, and given the deals signed by Nathan (four years and $47 million), Rivera (three and $45 million) and Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero (four and $46 million), he's in line for a big capital outlay. The Angels just might balk and hand the job to setup man Scot Shields or their in-house apprentice, Jose Arredondo.
Rodriguez grew up in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, as one of 14 children and was raised by his grandparents, so a financial windfall of that magnitude is impossible to ignore.
"It's difficult not to think about because that's my future," Rodriguez said. "But one thing I've learned is, 'If you can't control something, you have to let it go.' "
Rodriguez put that mantra into practice in spring training. He was on the field with his fellow pitchers in Tempe, Ariz., when he learned he had just lost in salary arbitration and would make $10 million this year rather than the $12.5 million he sought. As Scioscia recalls, Rodriguez simply shrugged, moved from the first-base-covering drill to the bunt-fielding station, and completed his day's work.
In contrast to, say, Barry Bonds swinging a bat, Rodriguez doesn't control his destiny in his pursuit of 57 saves. As Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan points out, Thigpen was one of only five closers in history (along with Rivera, Smoltz, Randy Myers and Rod Beck) who ever had 57 save opportunities in a season.
The Angels certainly fit the profile of a save-generating club. They're 32-14 in games decided by two runs or fewer. No team in baseball has played as many tight games, or been more adept at winning them.
If the trend continues, save chances will be plentiful for Rodriguez. If the offense picks up and the Angels enjoy a few more breathers, he might have to settle for a garden-variety of 45 to 50 saves.
Either way, Rodriguez will be in his usual seat near the bullpen phone, eagerly awaiting his next ninth-inning adrenaline rush. That's his personality, and he's not going to change.