Tim Benz: For Pirates, S-Rod now a lightning rod |

Tim Benz: For Pirates, S-Rod now a lightning rod

Tim Benz
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Sean Rodriguez walks from the field after popping out with runner on base during the fifth inning against the Dodgers Tuesday, June 5, 2018, at PNC Park.

Sean Rodriguez is doing the impossible. He’s making Pirates fans care again.

It’s for all the wrong reasons. A fan base dragged into the morass of apathy now has been forced to get riled up thanks to his presence in the box score. “Care” has manifested itself as “rage.”

“S-Rod” has become “Lightning Rod.” Mentioning his name in Pittsburgh these days has become like saying “Derek Bell” in 2001. Or “Kordell Stewart” in 1999.

Not much in terms of X’s and O’s evokes much emotion from Pirates fans lately. Management isn’t trying to win. So why should fans care if the team does or doesn’t?

But no self-respecting major league squad would give a hitter this bad as many plate appearances as Rodriguez. He has played in 53 of the Pirates’ 78 games. He has 137 plate appearances. That’s too many.

And that’s why Rodriguez is forcing Pittsburgh baseball fans to wake up angry once more. He wouldn’t be on a team that’s trying to win. He’d be designated for assignment. A club even feigning an attempt to compete wouldn’t dress him.

Consider these numbers:

• Among 147 National League players with at least 125 plate appearance his .145 batting average is last — .024 lower than anyone else. His -0.5 OWAR ranks 134. His .544 OPS ranks 142. His OPS and slugging are also are 142 individually.

• Rodriguez has only eight extra-base hits as opposed to 46 strikeouts.

• He has one hit in June and two since May 19. That’s 2 for 34.

He’s not even fielding well. Normally, Mr. Watercooler has been an above-average defender at any position he plays. This year, he already has committed five errors. He totaled three, seven and six in each of his previous three seasons.

For a team that loves to justify any move it makes based on metrics, there’s no statistical measure that justifies the continued use of Rodriguez. The argument for him playing as much as he has is there are no other big league options to rest Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison.

For instance, Clint Hurdle was so maniacal about getting Mercer his rest Sunday that he refused to pinch hit for Rodriguez at shortstop in the eighth inning, down 3-0. Rodriguez bounced into a double play. Hurdle said he was too concerned the game might go extra innings and Mercer’s off day would then be burned.

Who cares?!

Rest Mercer the next day then. The season is 162 games long. Everybody’s rest schedule gets thrown off. Look at Corey Dickerson, who had to leave for a family emergency, or Francisco Cervelli, who got a concussion.

Time for rest will find itself. Just like outs seem to find Rodriguez.

Even shuttled utility men Adam Frazier (.678 OPS) and Max Moroff (.662 OPS) have performed better than Rodriguez. Whatever they lack in range at shortstop hasn’t been that far off from Rodriguez, and they likely could make up for that minimal difference in the batter’s box.

Heck, give Kevin Newman or Kevin Kramer a look. Fast track Jung Ho Kang’s return. Whatever. It can’t be worse than the putrid display from Rodriguez.

On Sunday, general manager Neal Huntington told 93.7 FM that the club was trying to give Rodriguez a “cluster” of at-bats to get him back on track.

If that was for the right reasons, fine. Even if it was to warm him up to trade him, I’d accept that.

That’s not the case, though. Rodriguez is playing simply to justify his $5.75 million salary.

The baseball reasons, such as they are, for trying to get his game right aren’t even pure. It’s a hope that Rodriguez at least can get on track to the point that he can continue to bounce around the field and moderately resemble a major leaguer once the likes of Harrison, Mercer, David Freese and Corey Dickerson get traded.

All — or at least some — of those players will be gone by Aug. 1.

That’s what draws the ire of Pirates fans. It’s not just Rodriguez’s performance but the reasons for his continued insertion into the lineup.

Defenders of Rodriguez say he’s a whipping boy. He’s low-hanging fruit. He’s only a small percentage of the problem. He’s a good guy who tries hard and is getting picked on despite a gutty return from a bad car wreck.

If you are one of those people, let me say, “You’re right.”

Let me also say, “So what?”

Fan and media attacks against Rodriguez aren’t personal. He’s merely a target to aim at while swinging with anger at what the team is doing from a management perspective.

S-Rod is the punching bag. But the faces of Hurdle, Huntington, Frank Coonelly and Bob Nutting are taped to it.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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