Chris Rodriguez, at 20-years-old, struggled to arise from the floor where he spent the night trying to sleep, heading to the restroom thinking, “Damnit. Let’s see what I can try and do today that’s gonna make this help.”
At the end of the 2017 season, Rodriguez — one of the Angels top pitching prospects — began lifting weights with the mentality that he was too skinny and had to get stronger. As the winter progressed, Rodriguez felt a pain in his lower back that built gradually. The pain continued into the Spring where he underwent magnetic resonance imaging tests, and it was announced in March that he would be shut down from pitching with a stress fracture to one of his lower vertebrae.
As rehabilitation went on through 2018, Rodriguez still didn’t feel good throwing. Near the end of summer, the pain that consisted on the left side of his lower back transferred to the right side. He had not thrown a competitive pitch during the 2018 season.
That pain continued into the Spring of 2019, but he continued to throw.
“The best way to explain it was like a knife kept poking in your back,” Rodriguez told reporters on Thursday morning. “It was an awful feeling. I was able to throw through it because I didn’t want to be injured for another year.”
Rodriguez was sent to the Angels High Single-A affiliate in San Bernardino, California and began showcasing his special arsenal. His fastball sat 93-95, touching 97. He got swings-and-misses with a power slider, curveball, and changeup. It left many within and outside the organization with lofty expectations, as Rodriguez’s raw pitching prowess showed potential of being one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
The pain though, still remained.
“I would have to almost hurt my back for me to maintain it so that it would kind of numb out,” Rodriguez said of his early 2019 season. “After each inning, I would have to go back out and every time I went back out, I knew the first warmup pitch would be the worst pitch possible. It was either going 30 feet over the catcher or 30 feet into the ground because it hurt that bad the first pitch and then it would get warmed up after that.”
Despite the pain, Rodriguez’s results on the mound spoke for itself. In three short outings, Rodriguez threw just over nine innings, striking out 13, and allowing just 10 baserunners — none of which scored.
Whether factual or mental, Rodriguez took away an advanced development skillset from throwing through the pain and garnering results, as people would ask him, “If it’s hurting then why are you doing so well? Why are you throwing with the same velocity?”
“I was like, ‘I think it comes out to the fact when I get on the mound before I was like, ‘I have to strike this guy out or I have to do this.’ When I was on the mound that year, I was just like, ‘I have to get off this mound as quick as possible.’ It was almost like that helped me a lot when it came to pitching.”
Between outings, Rodriguez could not battle through his lower back pain to throw bullpen sessions. His back wouldn’t last a whole week without pain and would not permit him to throw his scheduled in between outing sessions. This caused him to worry about his arm health, and the risk of an arm injury that could cause another lost season.
“It was tough. I was sleeping on floors. I was figuring out anything possible I could do in 2019 so that I could finish the whole year. There were times I would wake up in the morning and I could barely get up and barely go to the bathroom.
“You’re cooking a meal or something. You’re just feeling it out, making sure, ‘Does this hurt? Does this hurt? Why is this hurting? Going to sleep I would have to put pillows under my leg. I was trying to figure out anything possible.”
One month into the 2019 season, Rodriguez was placed on the injured list and went to see a specialist for his back. MRI’s showed that the pain transferring from his left side to right side was no coincidence, and fractures were revealed in both sides of his L5 vertebrae.
Rodriguez had surgery to place two screws into his L5 vertebrae on March 17, 2019.
As the 2020 season approached, Chris Rodriguez headed for Spring Training healthy for the first time in two years. He felt he could finally throw and really let it go for the first time while not worrying about his back. Finding positivity in rehabilitation, Rodriguez never lost sight of the big picture and was ready to showcase his value.
“I knew at the end of the day I was going to be on that mound and take advantage of every single moment that I got. The Angels have a good support group where they kind of allow me to be myself and make sure I’m positive all the way through (rehabilitation). It’s been quite the road.”
Then, a worldwide pandemic hit.
Baseball was in a neutral state, awaiting whether they would play any games during the 2020 year. After league officials dictated sports could be played once again, and a drawn-out negotiation period, baseball would return with a limited season and an opportunity for Chris Rodriguez and others to be seen daily by team officials.
Alternate sites were setup for players named to extra roster spaces, with each team having 60 members of their organization available for the Major League roster. Among those: Chris Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who had not pitched in 14 months, went to Long Beach, California where the Angels held their alternate roster site at Blair Field, home of the Long Beach State baseball team. He would no longer be facing mid-level minor league hitters, but instead, guys who had played in the upper minors and Major Leagues. It was an entirely new development pattern for a young man who had yet to find a stabilized development in his short professional career.
“I would say it’s more than just a minor league season. Yeah, we didn’t get the fans. We didn’t play other teams. But I think it’s even harder to face the same group of guys that were up and down from the big leagues every single day. It’s tough and almost like a mind game where you have to figure out different pitches, different sequences where you have to get these guys out because they already know your stuff.”
Along with pitching against hitters who had years of experience beyond him, Rodriguez had yet to put a full season together and pitch with regularity over the span of a full campaign. He had thrown 77.2 innings over his five years in the Angels farm system, and only nine and one-third innings from the end of the 2017 season. Rodriguez had to maintain his pitching through the course of the 2020 summer.
“When it comes to the strength and medical side, it was kind of figuring out a routine where you can get through an entire season with being healthy and getting stronger doing that. That’s what last season was. It was get a feel for my body, really get a feel for a full season.”
Rodriguez threw around 70 innings during his time at the alternate site.
As the summer concluded, Rodriguez was sent to instructional league for more mound time. He was added to the 40-man roster in November, protecting him from the Rule-5 Draft and giving him a guaranteed spot on the Spring Training big league roster.
Arriving to camp in 2021, Joe Maddon’s focuses on Chris Rodriguez had started to peak as he had only briefly spoken to and seen the young pitching prospect. Eyeing the obvious weapons in his arsenal, Maddon and the Angels focus was one thing: health.
“We just gotta keep him healthy and not treating him to the point where you overly protect him,” Maddon said on Thursday. “You gotta get him out there and play. Despite being somewhat smart about it and letting this guy play. Gosh, he can be so dominant and that was obvious. It’s not just about velocity. You saw the movement too. It’s kind of unusual.”
On Tuesday night in the Angels third game of Cactus League play against the Cincinnati Reds, Maddon went to Chris Rodriguez with one out in the bottom of the third inning for his Cactus League debut. What happened next placed excitement in the manager and onlookers.
First pitch: Fastball, away, ball. Second pitch: Slider, down, swung on and missed. Third pitch: Fastball, away, swung on and missed. Fourth pitch: Fastball, inside, fouled off. Fifth pitch: Slider, down, ball. Sixth pitch: Changeup, down, swung on and missed – strikeout. All: 90 plus miles-per-hour.
Kyle Holder of the Reds was the first victim. Strikeout swinging.
In steps: Joey Votto.
First pitch: Fastball, 98 miles-per-hour, running away, swung on and missed. Second pitch: Changeup, down, swung on and missed.
“I just attack the hitters,” Rodriguez said. “I get in there and I’m gonna compete. I’m gonna come at you. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you have 30 bombs that year. Whatever it is, I’m gonna come at you. If you a hit home run, I’m gonna tip my cap to you, but if you step in that box you better be ready because I’m coming straight after you.”
It was evident that Chris Rodriguez was in attack mode against one of the most proclaimed hitters on the 21st century. The battle lasted another five pitches, with the end result exacting the first, a strikeout on a check swing from a changeup in the dirt.
“What you saw the other night, we don’t believe is a fluke,” Maddon said of Rodriguez. “That’s what he’s capable of doing.”
Rodriguez sat 96-98 miles-per-hour with his fastball, getting two swings-and-misses on six thrown. His slider and changeup were also in the 90’s, collecting four swing-and-misses on seven thrown. Although a short stint, Rodriguez showcased an arsenal that can compete with some of the best in the Majors.
“It’s an uncomfortable at bat,” Maddon, a former scout, stated. “The movement is that severe on 97, 98. In the day of the four-seam elevated fastball that kind of just rides in straight, this ball is coming at that number with a lot of movement so it’s a different look for the hitter. The slider off of that is devastating and the changeup is also an outstanding pitch. It’s just an uncomfortable at bat. When you have three well above-average pitches — if you have to grade it out, that’s a 70 on a scale from 20 to 80.”
When asked of who Rodriguez may remind him of, Maddon went straight to high praises of two of the game’s former elite pitchers.
“Everybody’s gonna talk about Francisco Rodriguez immediately, right?” Maddon directed. “That’s easy. Also, Jose Fernandez from the Marlins that passed away a couple years ago. When I first saw (Fernandez) at (Tropicana Field), I had heard about him but didn’t really pay a lot of attention because who knows? This is not an exaggeration. Windup, first pitch, I turned and said, ‘Who is that? What is that? What did I just see?’ Between delivery and the ball out of his hand, very first time I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was love at first pitch. I think the same thing happens with Chris. The windup and then here comes this pitch and then you see the fades and you see the delivery and everything about it. It’s pretty spectacular.”
As social media buzzed with videos of Rodriguez and his arsenal, including some videos of his entire outing, all of it reached Rodriguez. His phone blew up with messages from friends, family, teammates who had showed support through the years. He logged on to social media and became elated at the confidence shown by club supporters.
The outing though, as magnificent as it was, had a larger impact on Rodriguez himself.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it was your first big league Spring Training game,’ and all that stuff,” Rodriguez noted. “In reality, it was my first game with fans. It was my first game in two years where I was kind of letting everything out in a way and taking advantage of the moment. That’s why it was so big to me because it was more of a ‘Hey, I’m back!’ type of thing.
“When you’re injured and you’re rehabbing and you see all your teammates playing and you can’t do a thing, it kind of sucks at times. So that game to me was more like, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m ready to help’ type of feeling.”
Rodriguez will pitch again soon for the Angels, likely over the upcoming weekend, and will again showcase an attack on hitters with a loud arsenal. His chances of joining the club out of Spring are unlikely based on comments made by the club, but with some quick development, there is a chance at seeing Rodriguez with the Major League team in the near future.
“He’s got 70 kind of stuff at least and again, that’s just by maintaining good health,” Maddon said. “With good health he should be able to maintain those numbers and then learn how to utilize that stuff. That’s the next step for him.”