Rodriguez commanding his way to key bullpen role
Ability to locate pitches has youngest Dodger emerging as valuable reliever
LOS ANGELES -- A lot has changed for Paco Rodriguez over the past year.
The Dodgers reliever is on the cusp of earning a high-leverage role in the bullpen, only 11 months removed from being drafted in the second round of the 2012 Draft.
Rodriguez, 22, is the youngest player in the Dodgers' clubhouse. But the left-hander has also been one of the club's most consistent relievers this season.
Rodriguez is second on the Dodgers with 20 relief appearances, including seven straight scoreless outings. He's allowed just two to reach base in his last 7 2/3 innings.
While his name may not stick out among a star-studded Dodgers roster, Rodriguez is proving that he belongs.
"It's such a life-changing experience and it just humbles you because from where I was last year to where I am this year, it's a whole different world," Rodriguez said this week, glancing around the clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. "I'm living my dream. I'm doing what I love to do. When you see the names going down the line on all these lockers, these guys are big-name guys, so it's awesome just to have this opportunity and be able to learn from these guys."
The first player from last year's Draft to reach the Major Leagues when the Dodgers called him up in September, Rodriguez proved his worth right away to manager Don Mattingly.
Rodriguez made his big league debut Sept. 9 against the Giants following brief stops with Class A Great Lakes and Double-A Chattanooga. He made 11 appearances in 2012, striking out six in 6 1/3 innings and allowing one run. But his demeanor stood out just as much his performance.
"Paco just handled himself really well," Mattingly said. "He didn't seem to be overwhelmed. And he threw strikes."
Rodriguez made the Dodgers' Opening Day roster this year, and has found his work coming later in games as the season has progressed.
While he does not blow hitters away with pure velocity, Rodriguez keeps the ball down with great results and has late movement on all of his pitches.
"I'm mixing speeds, hitting my spots and dominating the bottom of the strike zone," he said. "That's my biggest thing. I'm not a flame thrower, but I do have good sink and just the fact that I'm dominating down in the zone and hitting my spots has been the biggest thing for me."
He's also impressed the coaching staff with his ability to locate his fastball, slider and cutter.
"He throws the ball where he wants to," Mattingly said. "When you can throw the ball where you want to, and you've got a few different weapons, you can get people out."
A reliever for three years at the University of Florida, Rodriguez hasn't had to change his role in the big leagues. When the Dodgers drafted him in June, they knew he was ready for the Majors Leagues, unlike previous choices out of high school.
"I think you've got a lot better chance when you get a guy out of college that's a little bit more polished," Mattingly said. "Some of the kids out of high school, you're kind of drafting for ability, a big arm, velocity and you're thinking they're going to develop. Sometimes they develop. I think you never know what you're going to get."
With Rodriguez, though, the Dodgers knew exactly what they were getting.
"The command of his pitches at that age and his preparation really made me think there was a possibility this kid could move up really quick and it wasn't out of the question he could help us in September," said Paul Fryer, the Dodgers' global cross-checker who helped sign Rodriguez. "It doesn't happen every year. It might not even happen every five years. There was kind of a gut instinct that he could actually help us."
Scott Hennessey, who scouted Rodriguez for three years with the Gators, knew early on that the lefty could contribute to the Dodgers a few months after being drafted.
"We felt that maturity-wise and stuff-wise that he was ready," Hennessey said. "Now, once you get to that level we didn't know if he was going to be starstruck or how he was going to react mentally if he had a bad outing or two. You never know that. But he's the most mentally tough guy that I've come across."
Rodriguez was not overmatched when he joined the Dodgers four months after being selected with the No. 82 overall pick.
"I think the biggest thing was when I first got up here, I told myself that if I was going to stay here, I had to pound the zone and just keep the ball out of the air," he said.
Rodriguez knows what makes him successful, and he sticks to it. That's something many young players struggle with.
While his numbers suggest he's not new to the big leagues, Rodriguez's teammates are quick to remind him. They like to give him grief about not knowing what it's like in the Minors.
"They did at the beginning, no question," Rodriguez said. "They would joke around about it and they probably still do. So it's always fun and it's a good laugh between the guys. But I respect them for it because I understand I am the youngest and I still have to learn a lot of things from them."
Part of being the youngest member in the bullpen means bringing out the sunflower seeds and bubblegum before each game.
But the Dodgers rely on Rodriguez for more than that, and he's proving capable of handling a high-leverage role in relief.
Austin Laymance is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.