Grace in the Mess: Hector Rondon

It shouldn’t be lost in the moral quagmire of the Aroldis Chapman trade that now-ousted closer Hector Rondon has shown admirable grace in light of his changed role in the Cubs bullpen. The questions raised about what bringing Chapman to Chicago means beyond just on the field performance have been addressed across the internet, by few more aptly than Rian Watt yesterday, so my thoughts on this trade from that viewpoint wouldn’t add anything to the table, so I’ll keep them to myself here. In the aftermath of the trade, I have been impressed by the reaction from Chapman’s now-setup man and would like instead to highlight that.

Rondon’s reaction has been measured and deferential in a way outside of what might typically be expected from the pitcher who is regularly charged with the most mentally and emotionally challenging spot in the game, because those are often the pitchers who come with the greatest ego. Not every pitcher pantomimes firing an arrow into the sky after that third out; most are content with a fist pump if any acknowledgment for what they have just done comes at all, but closers are sometimes the biggest peacocks on a roster. They kind of have to be, after all.

So when Rondon says that he’s good with relinquishing his role to Chapman, this plays against type for closers, at least the general one. For ESPN, Rondon had a sense of his own role in light of the trade that reflects a thorough understanding of something bigger than himself, “I think it’s good for our team… he’s one of the best relievers we have right now. I’m good with that. I know I did a really good job in my role. You have a chance to get that guy, better take it.” Rondon is right—he did do a really good job. Good enough to be entrenched as the closer on nearly 29 other teams, but now he’s a setup man instead. Since first getting the opportunity to do so in 2014, Rondon has gone on to save 77 regular season games for the Cubs and two especially valuable divisional series games last October. He has blown four saves this season, already matching his 2015 total though not among this year’s league leaders, but many of Rondon’s other numbers suggest that he’s been better than last year. Here’s a quick look:

2015 86 3.25 8.9 1.00
2016 72 2.60 11.7 0.73

Simply, Rondon has really not done anything to deserve being supplanted as the closer, and he seems to recognize that. But the argument is not that he doesn’t deserve to close games for the Cubs because he’s done the job effectively, notching 18 in 22 opportunities this year. He’s a good closer, but in light of Monday’s events, he’s content with a different role, “I don’t care if I pitch in the eighth or seventh. The only thing that matters is to come into the game and do my job.”

Rondon’s seeming serenity about moving down in the bullpen pecking order, so to speak, may come from a team-first attitude that’s built on a trust in the work of the front office. In Patrick Mooney’s piece on CSN Chicago on Monday, Rondon expressed some of this, “Everything’s about the team… I know the front office did a really good job to get Chapman.” In the same article, Theo Epstein gave his vote of confidence in Rondon’s pitching, and said that this move wasn’t about a lack of belief in his stuff, but rather just an opportunity to make a strong bullpen even stronger. Maybe when presented that way, Rondon can shrug off what would be understandable self-doubt that might creep up when a move like this is made.

Rondon’s response to Monday’s trade might have just as much to do with his history as well. He’s fought through bigger obstacles, after all. Perhaps a pitcher who’s been a Rule 5 pick and come back from Tommy John surgery, he’s gained some perspective on seeing things bigger than himself or things that feel weightier than they actually are in the immediate aftermath of their happening.

Even a week before the trade happened, Rondon must have had this possibility on his mind, and when he was asked about it, he said, “If they put him in my spot, whatever, s— happens. I can’t control that. The most important thing for me is to come into the game, pitch my inning – whatever inning they put me in – and do my job.”

Who knows, maybe this is all just good talk. Empty words from a guy who has no other choice at the moment. Or even the words of someone who knows that without a contract extension, Chapman won’t be pitching for the home team at Wrigley for more than a few months anyway. That might make stepping aside more palatable, knowing that it’s just temporary.

But that just doesn’t fit with what Rondon’s character seems to be. Not from the guy who laughed along with his teammates when they played “screw the closer” earlier in the season, and who remained affable throughout the rumor mill and trade process that culminated on Monday. When it happened, Rondon expressed no qualms about the fact that, though he is himself a more than worthy closer, Chapman is just better: “I like it, I like it. He is one of the best relievers we have right now [in baseball].” Then, speaking of his changed role with the team now but also of the lost save opportunities early in the season because his offense scored runs at a prodigious rate, “Everything is about winning. It does not matter if we win 10-1 or 1-0. If we win I am happy.”

Even aside from that, the byproduct of struggling through career threatening difficulty can often leave a player with a sense of perspective about some of the minutiae of the game, and this is something that Rondon is familiar with. Not only that, but he’s learned to take on a significantly different role once in his career already. Rondon was originally taken as a starter by the Cleveland Indians, but an elbow injury nearly shut him down for three seasons and eventually ended his time with that organization. The Cubs picked him up in 2013 and it was then that he was presented with the possibility of becoming a closer, a role that he learned to perform dominantly. He’s seen struggle and role changes already, so a chance to keep helping his team while they’ve found a way to improve even further is not one that he’s going to complain about.

It’s a mentality that roughly mirrors what C.S. Lewis said about pride: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” Rondon can rest in his experience, his performance, and the belief that he’s a part of something bigger, so there’s no reason for him to react negatively to this week’s changes. It just doesn’t seem to be in his nature.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.

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