After a bumpy start to the season, Chicago White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon is finishing 2016 on fire. What has led to his recent turnaround?
Heading into the 2014 MLB Draft Carlos Rodon was on a short list of candidates for the number one overall pick. The Houston Astros and Miami Marlins both elected to take high upside, high school pitchers with the first two picks (picks that haven’t exactly panned out), leaving Rodon there for the taking when the Chicago White Sox picked at third overall.
The White Sox snatched up Rodon giving them a fast-moving pitcher who had spent his amateur career at NC State dominating college hitters. The strapping southpaw did in fact move quickly through Chicago’s system, going from A-ball to the majors in less than one year.
Rodon’s rookie season in 2015 was a mixed bag. After a slow start, he finished the season with a 3.75 ERA with 139 strikeouts in 139 innings pitched. Rodon posted a 1.81 ERA over his last eight starts, giving the White Sox hope that 2016 would be his breakout season.
That wasn’t the case early on. The beginning of 2016 has been marred by less than stellar performance and injury. On July 6th, Rodon went on the disabled list with a sprained wrist. At that time he was sporting a 4.50 ERA over 16 starts.
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Since his return from the DL he has been a completely different pitcher. Rodon made five starts in August, compiling a 1.47 ERA.
September 2nd against the Minnesota Twins Rodon pitched seven strong innings, allowing only three runs while striking out five. The effort lowered his season ERA to 3.90. His 2.66 FIP over that span suggest Rodon’s recent performance is not just a small sample size mirage. He’s made real changes.
What has made Rodon so effective in the past is his wipeout slider. It’s as good as an “out pitch” as there is in the big leagues. What led to early season struggles was his lack of fastball command and lack of a third pitch to attack right-handed hitters with.
When he’s missing outside the zone he is in fewer counts where he can blow people away with his slider. When he misses in the zone that’s when he gets hit and gets hit hard.
Rodon’s command has improved over the course of the season. His strikeout rate has dropped from 22.9 percent last season to 22 percent this season, but his walk rate has fallen from 11.7 percent to 7.2 percent. He’s also started relying more on a third pitch.
August Fagerstorm of FanGraphs noted in a recent article that Rodon’s changeup usage has risen significantly lately. Before the All-Star break that rate was at 6 percent, since then it’s at 17.3 percent.
"The changeup rate’s tripled. Righties have seen it a quarter of the time on the first pitch. He’s used it while behind, he’s used it while ahead, and he’s used it as a strikeout pitch. The usage figures alone indicate that Rodon’s developed a greater feel for the offering. His numbers during the usage spike support his decision. But we can dive deeper to figure out with what kind of a change Rodon’s working, and whether it might be here to stay.Rodon’s changeup gets 10 mph of separation from his fastball, an amount that typically makes for strong whiff rates. Rodon’s whiff rate on the change has been soundly above average. It’s shown both more horizontal and vertical movement than the average change, according to PITCHf/x. And when Rodon’s throwing it, he’s doing a better job of keeping it down in the zone, relative to the first half:"
Opposing hitters are batting .286 against his changeup in 2016, compared to .148 against his slider, so there is room for improvement, but Rodon is clearly on the right track in his development. It looks like he has the confidence to throw that pitch more in games and that is the only way it’s going to get better.
He may not be perfect, but if everything comes together Rodon still looks like an ace in the making. If his changeup can become a weapon that can neutralize right-handed hitters there is no telling how high his ceiling as a pitcher could be.
White Sox fans may be despondent about this lost season, but the future of the rotation looks bright (jersey cutting insanity aside). Rodon, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana will lead the pitching staff in 2017 as the team looks to put a bizarre 2016 season behind them.