Carlos Rodón, Nearly Perfect

On his 110th pitch of the night, Carlos Rodón hit 99 mph on the radar gun. It was a wasted pitch, a ball that evened the count to Jordan Luplow at 2-2. Four pitches later, Rodón slowed it down, dropping in a changeup that Luplow rolled harmlessly to third base. Yoán Moncada fielded it cleanly and fired to first for the last out of the game. Rodón had thrown a no-hitter, the first of his career.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to that momentous event. I want to talk about that fastball first, though, because it’s also remarkable. That pitch was the fastest pitch a White Sox starter has thrown this year — tied, actually, with a Dylan Cease offering. Cease is a flame-throwing 25-year-old with a 70 fastball grade — a plus-plus pitch that anchors his entire game. Rodón hadn’t crested 93 mph in average fastball velocity since 2017. He pitched only 7.2 innings last year, and hasn’t topped 150 since 2016. In an increasingly young man’s game, Rodón seemed somehow past his prime at only 28.

In last year’s playoffs, he made the roster as an afterthought. He faced three batters, as a last resort in the team’s disastrous playoff exit — all three reached, the third on an intentional pass that fulfilled the three-batter minimum, and it would hardly have been a surprise if that was his last pitch in black and white. In a money-saving move, the Sox didn’t tender him a contract after the season.

He signed a one-year deal in February to return to the team, but his rotation spot was anything but guaranteed; the team held a more-or-less open competition for its fourth and fifth starter spots this spring. An offseason workout regimen and some rare but welcome good health helped him secure a spot, and a successful first start against the Mariners — 95 pitches and nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings — cemented it.

That brings us back to Wednesday night. After an uneventful top of the first, the White Sox offense did their best to remove all drama from the game. They pounced on an ineffective Zach Plesac, chasing him from the game after seven hits and six runs. Rodón, whose first fastball of the night left his hand at 91.1 mph, sat in the dugout and watched.

Rodón has never succeeded with raw swing-and-miss stuff. In his best full year, 2016, he induced swinging strikes on 10.1% of his pitches. Coming off of a winter of intensive training, there was reason to think that might change; he overpowered the Seattle lineup in his first start, recording 19 swinging strikes, the third-highest tally of his career, and averaged 95.4 mph on his four-seamer.

Early last night, however, the fastball wasn’t jumping and the whiffs weren’t forthcoming. Through 35 pitches and one trip through the Cleveland lineup, he tallied exactly one swinging strike, a changeup he used to fool Cesar Hernandez. He succeeded, instead, by coaxing soft contact. A lazy pop up here, a dribbler there, and yes, fine, a rocket off the bat of Roberto Pérez that Leury García snared.

In the fourth inning, Rodón racked up another swinging strike, a 95.5 mph fastball that Luplow swung through. He backed that up with another heater, this one at 96.5, for his first strikeout of the game, and breezed through the rest of the inning. That’s right — Rodón picks up velocity as the game goes on. In his first start of the year, he sat 92-93 in the first innings and 95-97 in the fifth. In his career, he’s averaged 92.5 mph the first time through the order, 93.5 mph the second time, and 94.2 after that. He gains strength as the game goes on, and he had already looked too strong for Cleveland the first time through.

With the score 8-0 after a third-inning two spot, the only drama left in the game was how long Rodón could go. He gained steam in the fifth, pumping a steady diet of fastballs up and changeups low that were too much for Franmil Reyes. He followed that up with a masterful slider that humbled Eddie Rosario for the second out of the inning, then coaxed a harmless grounder out of Amed Rosario.

That slider was his calling card as an amateur, a late-breaking wrecking ball that helped him to a career 2.24 ERA at North Carolina State and made him the third pick in the 2014 draft. It propelled him to the majors the very next year, and not as a late-season call-up; he made his debut in relief of Hector Noesí on April 21. He’s thrown it at least a quarter of the time every season, and it’s typically his out pitch. Last night, though, it was on the fritz early; he threw only seven in his first 50 pitches, and didn’t miss any bats with those.

As the game wore on, the slider sharpened to match the fastball’s increased kick. After yet another Pérez laser — again ably snared by García — Rodón deployed Cleveland’s patience against them. With two strikes, he painted a slider to Yu Chang — well, paintedish, at least — and recorded his second strikeout of the night. Two times through the order down, one to go:

There’s danger in that third trip, on average. Pitchers tire, while hitters learn timing; a dangerous mix. Well, most pitchers tire. Rodón was still powering up; he blew a laughably high 97 mph fastball past Luplow for his third strikeout, then fed a steady diet of changeups and fastballs to Hernandez and José Ramírez. Ramírez hit the ball directly on the nose, a 110 mph line drive to left, but fortune favored Rodón last night, and Andrew Vaughn barely had to move to field it.

By the eighth, everyone in the stadium was hanging on each pitch, and Rodón rose to the occasion. After Reyes popped out on a well-placed changeup, the White Sox got a gift; Terry Francona decided to get his starters some rest and brought in Jake Bauers, a lefty, to finish out the game. Rodón obliterates lefties — they’ve been 15% worse than righties against him in his career — and he overpowered Bauers, who swung through a slider and two fastballs in a desultory at-bat. Rosario fared no better, despite batting righty; cognizant of Rosario’s aggression and a widening strike zone, Rodón threw two consecutive sliders below the zone after an 0-1 count, and Rosario swung through them both for the out.

The White Sox have been blessed in the perfect game department. Charlie Robertson threw the third perfect game of the modern era in 1922, and given that there have been only 21 in history, that’s more than their share. They weren’t done, though. Mark Buehrle threw one in 2009, and Philip Humber added to the tally with his improbable perfecto in 2012.

The ninth promised drama, and it delivered immediately. Josh Naylor — an improbable candidate to break up Rodón’s brilliance, being both left-handed and in a slump — hit a tapper to first, but danger beckoned; José Abreu had to charge it, and there was no one covering first. Luckily, Abreu is flexible:

A review confirmed the call; Abreu’s desperate lunge was, by the barest of margins, in time. Two batters to go — but unfortunately for Rodón, one was Pérez, who had been his bane all night.

For a fleeting moment, Rodón looked like an unstoppable train. He pumped a fastball past Pérez, 96 in the upper third of the strike zone. He delivered another one above the zone, this time at 97, and got another whiff. He went back to the well a third time, and Pérez could only foul it off. Surely, it was only a matter of time.

But that slider — that tantalizing slider that was increasing in savagery as the game wore on — betrayed him. He located it exactly where he wanted it — the so-called back foot slider, a pitch that starts in the zone before diving down and in towards righties. This time, his command was too true:

Yes, the back foot slider hit Pérez in his back foot. It was no grazing blow — it struck him squarely in the toe, no doubt about that — but come on! A hit by pitch, on an extremity, with one out in the ninth? There ain’t no justice.

Luckily, a no-hitter was still in order, and Rodón was operating at peak efficiency. Poor Yu Chang was next, and he was felled by a makeup call, a called strike three that was roughly three inches off the plate. That brings us back to the top — a 99 mph fastball on the 110th pitch of the night, and a lovely changeup to complete the spectacular game four pitches later.

The strikeout totals might not jump off the page, but this game was a masterpiece. The first time through the order was an appetizer — grounders and pop ups aplenty, with only a single swinging strike. The next time through the order featured six of them and a handful of strikeouts. By his last trip, Rodón had reached full fire-breathing form; twelve whiffs, elite velocity, and a slider that turned batters to jelly. The White Sox hope that Rodón’s major league career follows the same trajectory — uneventful in the early going, building to a towering crescendo of brilliance as time wears on.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

It sounds like Rodon needs to figure out a warm-up routine that gets him closer to the mid nineties in the first, so he has a better chance to make it to the third and on. He’s a big strong guy. Maybe he needs to add a long morning mobility session or something to his game days.

3 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Ehh, I tend to disagree … it’s one thing if he is ineffective in the early going, but clearly he is fine. I would say your mileage may vary; when it comes to warm-up routines, if the guy is successful and getting outs I’m not concerned.

I would actually turn this on it’s head and say, BECAUSE he sits lower-90s with his stuff early on, by the time he gets to the 2nd or 3rd time through the order, he’s a completely different pitcher and it gets tough for hitters to settle in if he’s suddenly throwing mid-upper 90s and mixing pitches differently.

3 years ago
Reply to  jankees1991

Plus I can’t imagine going at full steam in the early innings would be good for his longevity. If he weren’t get stronger over the course of the game, he’d probably be getting weaker.

3 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

I think that’s a tough nit to pick, less than 24 hours from his no-no. Hard to complain about his results this year.

Bartolo Colon (the early years) would start games with his 93 MPH two seamer, but use his 100 four seam laser later in the game and for when he needed it.

3 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

I couldn’t disagree more. Ramping up on velocity as the game moves along is a great way to help you be effective when the third time through comes around because you’re showing the hitters a different fastball, which messes with their timing and keeps them from becoming familiar with you.

I’m actually really curious as to why more pitchers don’t do this. Verlander used to do it in his Detroit heyday and it allowed him to constantly work deep into games and remain effective deep into games. The anti Blake Snell if you will.

3 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Plus the research shows that pitchers get hurt when they throw more pitches at their maximum effort. Cruising at 91-93 and dialing it up to 97 when needed is a sound strategy.

Travis Lmember
3 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Lower velocity early on makes it less likely you’ll get to the order a third time. Verlander could do it because he was successful at 95. Not many players are JV.