By James Fegan
Preseason writing about Carlos Rodon probably looks silly in retrospect.
Barely a year removed from being drafted, Rodon finished the 2015 season completely on fire. Over his last eight starts, he went at least six innings and allowed no more than two earned runs each time, and posted a 1.81 ERA over that 54.2 innings stretch.
The White Sox are the rare team that not only does not flinch at the prospect of pushing a young pitcher through their system at warp speed, but can cite a relevant success story. Word of Rodon’s superlative talent and ready-to-dominate slider preceded him, and once he figured out how to point himself in the direction of home plate, it was enticing to believe that he was done taking his lumps, and was ready to become the above-average starter he’s capable of being right away.
That has not happened.
A popular confident stance with Rodon was that if he stepped into April continuing his work from last season, he would easily rise to become one of the 30-best starters in baseball.
It’s not too late for a monster second half, but that has not happened.
I even thought given Jose Quintana‘s almost unfailing steadiness combined with Rodon’s stratospheric ceiling, meant that a big leap forward for the young(er) left-hander could make him the second-best starter in the White Sox top-heavy rotation. Almost the exact reverse of that has happened.
When Chris Sale and Quintana were launching dueling Cy Young campaigns in April, and Mat Latos was magically dodging punishment, Rodon was getting chased out of the game by the Angels with two outs left in the first, or getting tuned up for six runs apiece in Baltimore and Texas. Even after a nice month of June, Rodon’s ERA sits at a middling 4.09 for the year, despite the second-highest strikeout percentage in the rotation, and despite the fact that he’s clearly getting better.
At the risk of offering the most obvious insight in the history of writing about pitching, the most interesting thing about Rodon of recent is that he’s throwing harder. In the future, he’ll need to try to soak up more innings, be more efficient and get weak contact in order to squeeze out the most value, and all the things that mature pitchers do after they’ve had their first turn setting the league on fire. And with Rodon’s stuff and his arm, proof of his comfort and command comes in the form of blowing hitters away.
Rodon has struck out 23 batters in 18 innings over his last three starts, and according to Brooks Baseball, has had his fastball sit comfortably at 95 mph in his last two outings, while his slider has ticked up to a harder 88-89 mph offering. Unsurprisingly, the increased velocity produced two of the highest swing-and-miss rates on the pitch of his season.
A violent headwhack and inconsistent motion marred Rodon’s delivery when he first arrived in Chicago, and during the worst of his control problems in 2015, but despite its issues, his velocity is remarkably easy. He can hit 91 mph and look like he’s merely grooving the ball to stay in the zone, and to a degree he is. But when Rodon can let it fly at max effort and still maintain his command, that’s when the top of the rotation potential starts becoming hard to ignore.
Another element of Rodon letting it fly has been an almost complete abandonment of his changeup. Developing his third pitch is customarily viewed as an essential step in his growth as a starter, but the offering is so far behind his bread and butter offerings, that trying to use it mid-start can often feel like an act of self-sabotage, and working on the change all spring left him behind schedule on his slider command when the season started. He looks more comfortable now with his best pitch harnessed again, but right-handers having an .831 OPS against him for the year suggests work on his arsenal is far from over.
With as much as there is left for Rodon in his development, expecting him to reach his No. 2 starter potential already does feel a bit silly, but most pitching staffs aren’t carrying a dormant stud-in-waiting who have already struck out nearly a batter per inning for 220 innings when most of his draft class is still in the minors. Overestimating him is erring on the safe side.