There are ways to downplay Rodney Theophile’s 0.82 ERA through six starts with the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals. At 22, he could be considered a tad old for the level he’s dominating this spring. A month and change is also a very small sample, especially for a player who appears once a week. And for the most part, Theophile is facing hitters at the beginning of their pro careers, making them more likely to chase and press and slump.
But his numbers through 33 innings — that ERA, five walks and 48 strikeouts — mean something, right?
“When you think of a starting pitcher, he’s what that is supposed to look like at this stage,” said Joel Hanrahan, Fredericksburg’s first-year pitching coach. “The frame obviously stands out at 6-foot-5. But beyond that, it’s powerful fastball, a change-up to complement it, throwing his curve for strikes consistently. He knows how to command the entire zone with his breaking ball right now.”
In June 2018, Theophile, a native of Nicaragua, signed with the Nationals for $10,000. He wasn’t listed in the online roundups of their international class. In the days before Washington saw him at a workout in the Dominican Republic, he was close to returning home for the rest of his life, figuring more than two years had passed without much interest from teams. It was the classic story of scouting one teenager and finding another, as the Nationals were focused on shortstop Yoander Rivero, not the tall righty throwing in the low- to mid-80s.
Theophile, then, was a sort of lottery ticket. An extremely tall lottery ticket.
“With that size and a projectable arm, you almost always take that chance,” said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ assistant general manager in charge of international operations. “He’s the most physically imposing guy we have aside from [top prospect Cade] Cavalli.”
Two coaches, Hanrahan and pitching coordinator Sam Narron, described Theophile’s height as an optical illusion.
Hanrahan: “I would be terrified if I were in the box, cause I stand in during his bullpens and it looks like he is just sitting the ball in the catcher’s mitt sometimes. He has such long arms.”
Narron: “It can really feel like he’s releasing the ball from four feet in front of the catcher. His fastball is really good and he can run it up to the mid-90s. But he pitches comfortably in that 92 to 93 range, which in today’s baseball is average. He just uses his size effectively so that it plays better.”
On the question of Theophile’s age for low-A, Hanrahan pushed back. The former all-star reliever looks at pitching experience more than time on earth. Theophile missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and all of 2020 after the minor league season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. His 33 innings bring him to only 136⅓ for his career, including a rough season last year with Fredericksburg. The 23-year-old Cavalli, by contrast, logged 123⅓ last summer alone.
So Theophile is still learning to pitch and use his arm post-surgery. In April, he yielded zero runs in three of his four outings (lasting four innings, five, six and six). In May, he made two appearances and allowed one earned run on eight hits in 12 frames. The one stat more impressive than his strikeout rate is how few walks he’s issued.
Soon, whenever he’s tested with the high-Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks, it will be telling whether he can throw this many strikes and still have success. Then it would be telling if he could do that at the next level, then the next, then the next.
“When you coach him, whether it’s for mechanics or pitch usage, or telling him something about the shape of his breaking ball, for example, he puts it into practice relatively quickly,” Narron said, noting that Theophile speaks fluent English. “There will be growing pains, like with any young pitcher. But the foundation is there and it’s exciting.”
Better hitters will eventually make any in-zone mistakes hurt more. But the Nationals are encouraged by his overall whiff rates, his change-up against lefties and his ability to induce groundballs with a four-seam fastball. Hanrahan has had Theophile try a sinker in bullpens, feeling a fourth pitch could help him down the line. The coach also called him an “interesting analytical candidate,” suggesting he could grab internal attention by grading well in advanced metrics.
Theophile’s extension — which measures how close a pitcher’s release point is to the plate — is among the best for Washington’s minor league pitchers. The angle at which his fastball arrives often forces batters to hit the top half of the ball, leading to his high groundball rate.
He is the exact kind of out-of-nowhere, non-prospect arm the Nationals have not developed much of in the past decade. He wasn’t supposed to be part of any plans. He was, realistically, way closer to quitting than making a legitimate run at his dream. And if Theophile builds on this standout month in the coming years, it would be a major early win for a revamped player development staff. The first step will be adjusting to how opponents adjust to him.