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Carlos Rodon and his trek to be an ace

The former third overall pick might be reaching his potential in 2019

MLB: Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees
Big step: Carlos Rodón has been one of the top pitchers of 2019 so far.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a bumpy road for Carlos Rodon with his performance and his health during his time with the White Sox. He has only had an ERA in the 3s once in his career, his rookie season. He has never been the strikeout pitcher he was tabbed to be, and he has never been able to put everything together with his pitches. Well, things may be changing for the better with the southpaw.

If you remember the The Next Step series, what Rodon needed to do the most was regain his fastball and sinker. Well, for the sinker (which was his worst pitch last season), he has almost never used it in 2019. From Baseball Savant, Rodon has only thrown 1.6% of his pitches as sinkers, and FanGraphs and Pitch Info aren’t even tallying those pitches as sinkers. Whatever the case may be, Rodon has clearly and purposefully ignored his worst pitch of the 2018 season. That is a good first step for success.

Now, as a whole, the fastball has not looked overwhelming, and the velocity is perceived to be down, but let’s take another look:

Rodon’s fastball velocity per game in 2019.
Baseball Savant

Last season, Rodon’s fastball averaged 93 mph (according to Baseball Savant), and so far this season it has dropped to 92 mph. But as you can see in the chart above, it is trending up back to that 93 mph mark. Tonight’s start is big in terms of fastball velocity, but the notion that Rodón’s fastball velo is down is not entirely true — last start, Rodón’s fastball averaged 93.1 mph. Besides the velocity overall, the results have also not looked good for Rodon’s fastball, but it is also clear why.

With using Pitch Info’s pitch value per 100 pitches, Rodón has had two positive and two negative outings with his fastball. From the velocity graph above, you should be able to guess which ones. The two middle games, against Cleveland and the Rays, were two terrible outings for his fastball, and his two slowest velocities. Those games had a -2.02 and -6.20 rating, respectively, for the fastball. Meanwhile, Rodón’s first and fourth games, where the fastball was hitting 92-93 mph consistently, saw good numbers, the best being his latest outing.

Now that is not all, not even close. On top of not using the sinker, Rodón’s changeup usage has fallen as well. Though in his last game the change was near Rodón’s career norm, he has mostly avoided it so far this season. Both of those reductions in usage have led to about a 16% increase in sliders from Rodón, and those sliders have been dominant.

In using Pitch Info’s pitch value per 100 pitches, Rodón’s slider ranks fifth among sliders in all of MLB out of the 38 pitchers that have gone at least 20 innings. That rating would be a career-high for Rodón if it holds.

A lot of that success is based on the swing and misses the slider has induced so far in 2019. The current whiff rate against the slider is at 47.1%, which would be a 7% increase from his previous career high. In fact, Rodón has the most swing and misses against his slider (41) in baseball. His slider has been nothing short of elite, as you can also tell from the heat map below:

Carlos Rodon’s ISO per pitch per zone against his slider in 2019.

Now, what Rodon is right now with these four games pitched, is a two-pitch pitcher. That two-pitch pitcher has accumulated 1.0 fWAR, second in baseball for pitchers, and the second-best FIP (1.87) among starting pitchers. He is striking out more hitters than he ever has and walking people at a second-best career mark. That is what two-pitch Carlos Rodon has done in four starts. However, Rodón will need to incorporate his changeup more often, like he did in his last start. His changeup usage rose about 8% from his previous three outings, to a level that is more in line with his career norm.

Overall, the change has been slightly better than last season, but because of the early sample, one bad changeup game outweighs the rest. With the pitch value per 100 pitches, Rodón has only one negative game from his changeup so far this season, his worst start, against the Tampa Bay Rays. But this past game, Rodón was able to get through six innings with all three of his pitches working and with their placement, you can see why:

Rodón’s Fastball, Slider, Changeup from left to right pitch location.

The location for these, though not optimal at all times like the sliders down the middle, was effective for Rodón and should be the template moving forward. He only allowed three hits against the New York Yankees (two off the fastball and one off the slider). The swing and miss was not there with his fastball and slider that day, but because the locations were all so near each other, the change thrived for an 80% swing and miss rate.

That is a mark of a great pitcher: His two best pitches were not getting whiffs, though they did induce weak contact, so his tertiary option became his swing and miss pitch.

If the beginning of the year has indicated anything with Rodón, it is that he is closer to being an ace than ever before.