The closer who doesn’t close was almost the pitcher who doesn’t pitch. Before we get to Hector Rondon’s past, though, it’s important to highlight just how amazing his present is, considering it almost didn’t happen.
Rondon is the Chicago Cubs’ closer, a job not dissimilar to a gardener in the Sahara. The Cubs are the best team in baseball, and the best team in baseball typically features a closer among the league leaders in saves. And yet Rondon finds himself tied for 23rd overall with just nine saves – two ahead of a pitcher who missed the first month of the season due to suspension, three in front of a guy who locked down his closing job last week, his opportunities lost not because of his failures but his teammates’ successes.
“I don’t have too many chances this year,” Rondon said. “My teammates are hitting so well late in the game. But I don’t worry about it too much. I worry about the games we’re winning.”
That’s 35 of their first 50 for those counting. And of those 35, nearly two-thirds have come by four or more runs. Yes, only 13 times have the Cubs bothered to win a game by three or fewer runs. And of their 15 losses, a dozen have come by three or fewer, meaning just 6 percent of the time have the Cubs lost a game that wouldn’t be considered close.
Now, this isn’t to say Rondon is bored. There might not be a more on-display smile in the Cubs’ clubhouse. Rondon is a wizened 28, his perspective constantly refreshed by the reminder of just how lucky he is to be here instead of working in a Venezuelan factory.
To understand why, go back to 2010. Rondon was one of the best prospects in the Cleveland Indians organization, a right-hander with a high-90s fastball and a ceiling to match. Some scouts saw him as a potential frontline starter. Then his elbow started to hurt. In August 2010, he needed Tommy John surgery. During his comeback, he broke a bone in his elbow. And that was it. Rondon planned on retiring.
“I was 100 percent done,” he said. “I told my girlfriend, my dad and my mom. And they agreed. If I wanted to do it, they were with me. I told the Indians I didn’t want to play any more baseball.”
The organization urged Rondon to reconsider. He was just 23. If he could shake the injuries, he had plenty of career ahead of him. We need you, Rondon was told. We believe in you. Just rehab it and maybe you’ll change your mind.
“Those last two months of the rehab, I still felt sore, still felt pain, but the velocity was coming good,” Rondon said. “When I finished my rehab, I still felt pain. But I still had good velocity. And after that, it was a different story. I knew I could pitch. I knew I could come back. So I was different mentally.”
Between 2011 and 2012, Rondon pitched a total of 10 innings. The Indians didn’t add him to their 40-man roster, which exposed him in December’s annual Rule 5 draft. The Cubs chose him second overall, a pick that looked a tad curious because of Rondon’s inaction but actually used a bit of brilliant inside information.
On the day before the Rule 5, Franklin Font, a coach with the Cubs, spoke with Cubs VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and international scouting special assistant Louis Eljaua about Rondon. They wanted to know about his makeup. Font raved. And his stuff? Well, Rondon had pitched 23 games that winter for Leones del Caracas of the Venezuelan Winter League – for whom Font happened to coach.
“I thought he could pitch in the big leagues,” Font said, and so the Cubs popped Rondon, knowing they would need to keep him on their major league roster all year or risk losing him back to the Indians. Most Rule 5 picks are too physically or mentally immature, or simply not good enough, to stick. For every Josh Hamilton and Johan Santana, there are a hundred who have failed. The situation couldn’t have been better for Rondon, though. The Cubs were going to stink. No pressure to perform existed. He just needed to stay healthy.
Rondon managed as much, and by the 2014 season, he was the Cubs’ closer, his strikeout rate jumping to nearly one per inning and his walks halved. Last season, minus a month-long midsummer reprieve, he closed again and finished with a 1.67 ERA. And this year, limited though his action may be, Rondon has been unstoppable.
Over 17⅓ innings he has allowed nine hits, walked two, struck out 27 and, of course, blown zero saves. More than half the balls that end up in play are on the ground for the Cubs’ excellent infield to smother, and only one in the air has ended up over a fence. His ERA is 1.04. His strikeout-to-walk rate is almost Kershawian. He is this decade’s Joakim Soria – the legitimate stopper plucked out of Rule 5 obscurity.
“He told me after he made the team that year that he almost quit,” Font said. “He was mentally down. And good for him for not doing it. He got an opportunity, and look what he has done.”
He has imbued the Cubs with confidence in the ninth inning, all without having to drop big money or prospects on a closer. The Cubs built the foundation for the best team in baseball on the margins. Win a trade here … and get Anthony Rizzo. Win another there … and voila: Jake Arrieta. It’s not that easy, of course, but they’ve made an art of turning nothing into something, and Rondon is a prime example.
That they’ve used him for that few innings – fewer than 144 relievers this season – isn’t exactly the worst thing, either.
“It’s just gonna save him for later on in the season when I really need him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve been working off that premise. I try to get him in as often as we can, keep him fresh, keep him frisky, keep him sharp. And he has been. But my thought is: enjoy it while you can. Because it’s not gonna be that way the whole year.”
No, the Cubs have greater dreams than April and May glory, and Rondon would rather win a title than a save crown. He’s happy, in fact, to continue being the closer who doesn’t close. Just as long as the Cubs continue to be the team that almost never loses.