Carlos Rodon is attempting a very rare transition. Less than a year removed from starting at North Carolina State, Rodon is attempting to navigate major-league lineups at just 22 years old. Only Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Pineda, and Julio Teheran have pitched 150 innings in rookie seasons at Rodon’s age or younger in the past five years. Rodon has now made six appearances in the majors after making only nine in the minors. His 22.1 major-league innings have already surpassed the 22.0 innings he pitched in Triple-A since signing with the White Sox last summer for over $6 million after the team made him the number three pick in the draft. Rodon’s slider and fastball are major-league ready, but he has yet to challenge hitters consistently or rely on an offspeed pitch, leading to almost a walk per inning. Rodon is already the White Sox’ fourth-best starter behind Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana, but he is not yet a finished product and still has some development ahead of him in the majors.
Rodon has the potential to accomplish a feat even more rare than the one performed by Fernandez, Miller, et al. No pitcher in the last 15 years has been drafted from college, made their debut within a year of signing and pitched at least 150 innings at 22 years of age or younger. The last player to achieve what Rodon is attempting was Jeff Weaver in 1999 for the Detroit Tigers. Weaver made 29 starts, had a 5.55 ERA and 5.22 FIP on the way to a 1.6 WAR season. In the last 30 years, the only other pitchers to do the same were Jim Abbott in 1989, Bobby Witt in 1986, and someone White Sox fans should remember, Jack McDowell, who made his debut shortly after the draft in 1987 and made 26 starts in 1988 for the White Sox before winning the Cy Young four years later.
Rodon’s ticket to the big leagues is a wipeout slider that he has been excellent for quite some time. Here is footage from him at North Carolina State making hitters look foolish back in 2013, courtesy of this post from Carson Cistulli.
Rodon is still making hitters miss on his slider. This pitch is from his debut in the majors last month.
Rodon pitches with his slider a little over 30% of the time, and it’s easy to see why. He’s gotten whiffs on 19% of his sliders and he gets more swings per pitch on the slider than on either his four-seam or two-seam fastball, per Brooks Baseball. However, Rodon reaching the majors with just a fastball and slider was not the plan at the beginning of the year, according to manager Robin Ventura. This is what Ventura had to say when the White Sox left him off the major-league roster:
“Everybody has different opinions on him,” Ventura said. “But you don’t want to put him in there with one pitch or two pitches. You want him to be armed with the things that make him successful and you don’t want him to come up here and be a flash in the pan and he’s got to go down and work on stuff. He needs to be a complete product when he comes out of here.”
The back end of the White Sox rotation coupled with suspensions for two of the club’s top arms compelled Rodon to join the rotation. After walking the first two hitters he faced against the Reds in his starting debut, he struck out eight while conceding just two more walks and two runs the rest of the way, a performance that earned him a spot in the rotation and kept Hector Noesi in the bullpen. The problem for Rodon is that hitters are swinging at all of his pitches less frequently with every start. Below are a few key plate-discipline numbers from Rodon’s last three starts.
Rodon is getting ahead of fewer hitters, making his slider less effective as an out pitch to get the strikeout. Against Cleveland in his last start, the slider generated just four swings and misses out of 29 pitches, per Brooks Baseball. Here is the pitch plot from his last start, also from Brooks Baseball.
Rodon relies on the slider out of the zone, but when he cannot get ahead with his fastball, the slider loses some of its potency. The fourth inning last night is a decent representation of Rodon’s effectiveness. Against the first batter he faced, Ryan Raburn, Rodon got ahead in the count 0-2 and then used the slider.
Raburn could not quite hold up, but Rodon got behind the next hitter and the results were not as good. Nick Swisher stepped in and two of the first three pitches were sliders out of the zone that Swisher took for balls. The count went full after three fastballs in the zone (one called a ball), and then Rodon went to the slider again.
Swisher held off and reached first. On the night, Rodon walked five hitters and gave up four hits in six innings, allowing just one run. The final hitter of the fourth inning, Mike Aviles, helps explain why on a fastball.
The Indians left five runners on base in Rodon’s six innings of work and had two more erased on double plays from the White Sox defense. Robin Ventura emphasized command as Rodon’s weakness in his last start, per CSN’s game story from Dan Hayes.
“As he goes along he’s going to get better with command and things like that. The stuff is there, definitely. But cleaning it up, being able to get through that without giving the other team opportunities, you’ve got to make them beat you. You can’t give them stuff like that.”
Rodon agreed, but also mentioned the quality of major-league hitters and their ability to lay off the slider.
“I mean it’s different, guys are a little more patient,” Rodon said. “You just have to throw strikes. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, that’s it right there.”
“They lay off those good sliders that usually get chased (in college),” Rodon said. “They got in those counts where they can hit and it’s tough.”
When any pitcher lacks command of the fastball, it is going to be difficult to get hitters out, but it is even more true for a pitcher like Rodon, whose two pitches (three, counting two types of fastballs) are a fastball and a slider that primarily moves outside of the zone. Of the pitchers who have thrown at least 30% of their pitches as sliders this year, all but four pitchers throw another pitch outside of their fastball at least 10% of the time. Tyson Ross, Chris Archer, Jason Hammell and Wily Peralta are all almost exclusively fastball-slider pitchers, but they all have something in common with each other that Carlos Rodon does not: those pitchers are right-handed and have the platoon advantage a majority of the time. Left-handed pitchers that use the slider at least 30% of the time, such as Madison Bumgarner and Francisco Liriano, also use a curve and change, respectively, to give hitters another look.
Carlos Rodon worked on a change in spring, and used it in his first start in the minors equally with his slider. Once he arrived in the majors, he has essentially abandoned the pitch, throwing just eight changes out of more than 400 pitches — including zero changeups in his most recent start. When he cannot command his fastball, it’s probably too much to expect him to try and refine a new pitch against MLB hitters while also trying to win the game, but Rodon still has some development left and he has to do that work in the majors. The White Sox’ recent win streak has put them in position to make a run at the division, but they still have considerable ground to make up and significant holes on their roster. An improving Rodon could make a big difference in the White Sox’ chances, provided the the team also improves on offense. As Rodon tries to improve as a pitcher, he knows he needs to throw more strikes. Adding a useful change would help him immensely in that regard. Just a year out of college, he has already shown why his floor is so high; if he can add an offspeed pitch, he will show the heights of his ceiling as well.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.