It’s anecdotal of course, of little value maybe, but when you’re talking to Carlos Rodon these days, you get a different feeling than you might have last year. He’s more… comfortable. He’s not a rookie anymore. “Knowing you belong” is really important, as he put it to me.
But the reason he knows he belongs now is that he had a great second half last year. He agreed that went a long way to calming the nerves. But anyone can have a great half without a major adjustment, only to see things change once again at the whim of the baseball gods.
The good news is that Rodon made two huge adjustments last year that coincided with the start of his run. That suggests it wasn’t luck. That suggests that Rodon has found something that can help him walk fewer batters. And that’s about all that stands between Rodon and a breakout season.
“I moved towards third base on the rubber,” he deadpanned. That sounds little. It is! But the effects cascaded throughout his pitching mix.
As one can see from the chart here, Rodon was actually slowly moving to the third-base side all season. But there’s a dramatic shift in his last start in July, and then he stayed on that side the rest of the way. Rodon walked 13.1% of the batters he faced before that game, or more than five per nine. After that date, he walked 9.5% of the batters he faced, or just 3.5 per nine — just a hair away from average.
The change in setup helped him on fastball command, specifically. Though Zack Greinke told me this spring that he felt he had natural command to his glove side, and that a move on the rubber really helped him find the plate, Rodon wasn’t as sure where his best command was. “At times it’s glove side,” said the left-hander. “At times it’s arm side.”
What he was sure about was that the new orientation on the mound allowed him to do more with his fastballs. “It helped me get my two-seamer on the corner to righties. I set up closer to middle-in against righties and then I could catch the outside corner with my sinker. If I start on the first-base side, I have to throw it towards the hitter and hope to catch the corner.”
Look at his heat map (from the catcher’s point of view) for his sinker before and after the change. He simply shifted it closer to the strike zone. On the left, his sinker was missing the outside corner. On the right, he’s all over that corner with a pitch moving away from righties.
This same paradigm shift helped him with his four-seamer, too. He throws that “inside to righties.” And now? “It’s more of a straight line instead of a dramatic angle.” This one isn’t as obvious, but you’ll see he used to miss off the inside corner to righties, and he doesn’t any more.
Just a simple step to the right, and his heat maps aligned better.
There was one more thing that he fixed with something about as simple. Talk to him about his keys now, and he talks about the importance of “extension… riding to the plate.” Rodon says he has to “get that ball out of the glove on the kick up and get the ball up and then just ride it down, throw it through the middle of that doorway and driving it all the way through.”
Those, he’ll admit, are just “little words he uses to remember what to do.” But his pitching coach Don Cooper had an exercise for him that helped him reinforce those words. He asked the pitcher to crow hop while warming up, and that helped the pitcher get “extension and an ‘aggressive ride’ to the plate” as Dan Hayes put it.
Two tweaks helped the fastball command, and that’s huge to a pitchers throwing his fastball 3 mph faster than your average lefty. He’ll go far on those two fastballs alone.
Then there’s the slider. Rodon maybe isn’t Luke Gregerson with his three sliders, but he’s close. The White Sox lefty has a few ways to throw the slider. Rodon names the three basic versions, starting with a “big slurve.” And then: “you get one that’s a harder slider, and then your hardest one that’s basically a cutter. It’s just how hard I’m going to throw it. Take two miles off and you add a bunch of movement.”
Of course, the changeup is the thing that everyone’s watching. “It’s been a work in progress,” sighs the big guy. “It’s not an easy thing.” He used it a lot in March to get that feel for the pitch. He estimates he threw about 60 in games this spring, and laughed about the day where he didn’t throw a single slider. (“It was a good day.”)
But everything will be a little different when he steps to the mound tonight in Oakland. “When you get on the mound, you have that adrenaline and it starts moving more,” he said of the change, agreeing that he can’t command it that well.
That’s alright. He’s had a great stretch in the big leagues based on improved fastball command and those three sliders. Maybe a changeup — with above-average movement and command — used sparingly for whiffs from righties, maybe that average-ish changeup will be enough.
In any case, he’s not as worried this year. “Feel like you belong and you start pitching again,” he said of this coming season.
So yeah, that comfort level, it’s an anecdotal thing. But behind that comfort sits a few adjustments that have solidified Carlos Rodon’s place in baseball. Real, tangible adjustments that, put together with just a few more changeups, should help Rodon ascend to heights in the game that the White Sox foresaw when they took him with the third-overall pick in the 2014 draft.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.