Carlos Rodón’s Big Comeback

Regardless of where he and the White Sox go from here — at this writing, they’re on the brink of elimination against the Astros, down two games to one in the Division Series — the 2021 season has already been the best of Carlos Rodón’s major league career. On April 14, the 28-year-old lefty threw the season’s second no-hitter (nearly a perfect game). In July, he made his first All-Star team, and he finished the season having set career bests in ERA (2.37), FIP (2.65) and WAR (4.9), numbers that all led the staff of the AL Central champions. Under normal circumstances, the availability of such a pitcher to start such an important game would be a godsend, but the combination of Rodón’s late-season bout of fatigue and Monday’s postponement due to rain gave manager Tony La Russa the option to reverse his previous decision and bring back Game 1 starter Lance Lynn on regular rest, a choice that Dan Szymborski tackled elsewhere on the site.

It’s been quite a comeback for Rodón, who just over a year ago appeared as though he might have reached the end of his run with the organization that drafted him with the number three overall pick out of North Carolina State in 2014. To one degree or another, he’s been beset by arm problems for nearly all of his major league career, to such a point that only once has he thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Rodón reached the majors less than a year after being drafted, but spent his first four seasons with performances that were right around league average in terms of ERA and FIP; he posted a 97 ERA- and 101 FIP- for the period and only once made more than 23 starts, topping out at 28 in 2016, a season in which he missed three weeks due to a left wrist sprain. The arm troubles showed up in 2017, when biceps tendinitis and bursitis in his shoulder limited him to 12 starts; recurring bursitis led to surgery that cost him the first two and a half months of 2018. Five weeks into the 2019 season, he wound up needing Tommy John surgery, and while he was ready to go to start the long-delayed, pandemic-shortened ’20 season, he made just two starts before being felled by shoulder soreness, then pitched just two innings in late September upon returning. The White Sox included him on their postseason roster, but in his lone appearance in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series against the A’s, he failed to retire any of the three Athletics he faced when summoned to protect a 3-2 lead with two outs in the fourth inning; the A’s took the lead, and while the White Sox came back to tie the game, they were ultimately eliminated.

The White Sox non-tendered Rodón last December, a move that the pitcher said motivated him to adopt a healthier diet and get into better shape. He re-signed with the team on a one-year, $3 million deal in February, and worked with new pitching coach Ethan Katz to iron out some mechanical issues. Via the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Daryl Van Schouwen in March:

“My direction to home plate hasn’t been good in a while,” said Rodón, who is keeping his back foot, not his toe, grounded on the rubber. When he drove off his left toe he landed on the right big toe of his other foot and that led to throwing across his body.

Via The Ringer’s Michael Baumann in May:

“If you go back and look at old videos of me and dive into those mechanics, I was kind of a crossfire guy. When I landed, my stride to home was real short and closed off toward the plate,” Rodón says. “I think a lot of it had to do with injuries, how to throw a baseball without feeling something hurting. A lot of bad habits are created in that process. And I was getting some results. Not great, but good enough.”

…The key, Katz says, was changing how Rodón pushed off the rubber. Before, he’d been driving with just his toe, which was sending him toward first base and setting into motion all the mechanical messiness that had plagued him over the previous few years. Katz’s goal was to get Rodón to drive more off his back leg and use his entire foot to explode off the rubber. “When you keep a better direct path toward home plate, that also keeps him healthier instead of battling across himself all the time,” Katz says.

The work quickly paid off. Rodón didn’t allow a run in his first 16 innings, spread over three starts including his April 14 no-hitter against Cleveland. While hitting Roberto Pérez in the left foot with one out in the ninth deprived him of a perfect game, he did complete a hidden perfect game within that stretch, retiring 27 batters in a row from the final inning of his April 5 start against the Mariners through the first out of the ninth in the no-hitter, José Abreu’s lunging tag of first base that prevented Josh Naylor from reaching. Rodón’s hidden perfecto concluded just a day after that of future teammate Craig Kimbrel; there were five more such gems in the rough during the 2021 season, but that’s a story for another day.

Rodón continued to roll on, striking out a career-high 12 in six innings against the Tigers on April 29, then surpassing that with 13 strikeouts against the Yankees in the Bronx on May 21. In 15 first-half starts, he allowed zero or one runs 10 times, posting a 2.31 ERA and 2.36 FIP. That last mark was the AL’s best at the time, as was his 36.1% strikeout rate; his name began surfacing in Cy Young conversations. His 95.9 mph average fastball velocity to that point was 1.7 mph higher than in any of his full seasons, and three full ticks higher than in 2018, his last season before Tommy John surgery.

In addition to cleaner mechanics, some of Rodón’s success probably owed to the White Sox giving him extra time between starts, sometimes with reliever Michael Kopech or swingman Reynaldo López taking a turn within their rotation. The plan appears to have helped their entire rotation; the team had the seventh-highest total of starts on six days of rest, with the lowest FIP and third-lowest ERA:

Most Games Started on 6+ Days of Rest
Rk Team GS IP ERA FIP
1 LAA 102 496.1 4.97 4.21
2 MIN 64 303.2 5.90 5.22
3 PIT 60 271.2 5.40 4.39
4 ARI 57 297.1 4.96 4.61
5 TBR 56 254.1 3.93 3.87
6 TEX 55 246.1 6.58 5.67
7 CHW 51 264.2 3.40 3.53
8 MIL 49 232.0 4.15 3.97
9 SEA 48 224.2 5.57 5.01
10 NYM 47 206.0 4.67 4.76
11 SDP 46 203.2 4.46 4.04
12 MIA 44 191.1 3.95 4.71
13 KCR 43 197.0 5.03 3.79
14 DET 42 203.0 2.75 3.70
15 ATL 42 215.1 3.89 4.39
16 TOR 40 197.0 3.70 3.84
17 NYY 40 178.0 4.50 4.35
18 BOS 39 180.2 5.13 4.23
19 STL 38 177.0 4.42 4.31
20 COL 37 178.0 4.96 4.60
21 BAL 37 161.0 6.54 5.47
22 HOU 36 184.1 3.61 3.90
23 CIN 35 168.2 4.75 4.39
24 SFG 35 167.2 3.22 3.83
25 CHC 35 158.1 5.17 4.95
26 CLE 34 158.1 5.06 4.91
27 WSN 29 144.1 3.68 4.27
28 OAK 28 151.1 3.93 3.87
29 PHI 26 114.2 3.92 4.38
30 LAD 20 95.2 3.95 3.72
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

What’s more, the White Sox tied with the Astros and Athletics for the fewest starters used (nine), and tied with the Brewers for the most starters with 24 starts or more (five). The six teams with four or more such starters (the Giants, Reds, Mariners, and A’s were the others) averaged 92 wins.

Through the season’s first half, Rodón pitched on four days of rest five times, five days three times, six days of rest once, and seven or more days five times. He didn’t actually pitch at the All-Star Game, and when he came out of the break, pitching on 11 days of rest, he spun seven innings as part of a combined one-hitter against the Astros, with Kopech and Liam Hendriks adding an inning apiece. But after he lasted just four innings and allowed four runs on normal rest in back-to-back starts in late July, he made just one more start — a good one, with 11 strikeouts in five shutout innings against the Cubs on August 7 — before landing on the IL due to left shoulder fatigue.

Upon returning on August 26, Rodón made just five starts the rest of the way, four of which came with at least eight days between them. The results were solid; he went five innings in all but one of those five, a September 20 start against the Tigers that was also the only one in which he allowed more than two runs. However, his average fastball velocity was down 1.5 mph from the first half, and the trend hasn’t looked promising:

The 15-start mark coincides with the end of Rodón’s first half; only in four of his nine second-half starts was his average fastball velocity within the range he showed in the first half. By Statcast, in Rodón’s September 29 start against the Reds, he averaged 90.9 mph, 4.5 mph below his season average, and maxed out at 92.7 mph.

We’ll get to the implications of his recent velocity, but first, how did Rodón suddenly break out? Mainly because with his higher velocity he started generating a whole lot more swings and misses:

If you ignore the 2019-20 data points to due to the small samples — and at just 41.2 innings combined, I’m doing so except when aggregating it with career totals — this year, Rodón has posted his best swinging strike rates on two of his three pitches. His 13.8% rate on his fastball is more than double his previous career rate of 5.8%, while his changeup rate of 16.3% is up 3.5 points from his previous career mark. His 17.5% rate on his slider is about a point below his career mark, but within the range of his pre-injury numbers.

Combine that swing and miss rate via his fastball with the modest numbers that batters managed when they did make contact, and Rodón’s four-seamer was the most valuable offering in the majors this year:

Most Valuable Pitch Leaderboard
Pitcher Pitch Pitches PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff % Run Value RV/100
Carlos Rodón 4-Seamer 1301 301 .199 .336 .275 29.7 -26 -2.0
Adrian Houser Sinker 1268 355 .209 .268 .286 13.8 -23 -1.8
Kevin Gausman Splitter 1061 301 .133 .224 .186 45.9 -23 -2.2
Robbie Ray 4-Seamer 1866 471 .222 .431 .316 24.0 -22 -1.2
Corbin Burnes Cutter 1356 364 .237 .328 .287 32.1 -22 -1.6
Ranger Suárez Sinker 734 192 .210 .250 .240 19.2 -22 -3.0
Charlie Morton Curveball 1096 315 .127 .187 .184 40.1 -21 -2.0
Freddy Peralta 4-Seamer 1219 309 .156 .308 .277 30.9 -20 -1.7
Julio Urías Curveball 953 229 .155 .233 .187 26.2 -20 -2.1
Logan Gilbert 4-Seamer 1307 324 .254 .401 .311 21.6 -19 -1.4
Gerrit Cole 4-Seamer 1399 312 .225 .398 .289 27.6 -19 -1.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That’s the kind of pitch that can put one in an awards discussion, and if Rodón had come close to sustaining his run prevention across a larger workload, he’d be in the AL Cy Young mix alongside Ray, Cole, and perhaps Nathan Eovaldi. Beyond Rodón’s fastball, batters did almost nothing with his slider (.107 AVG/.126 SLG), which was worth -14 runs and ranked as the 35th-most valuable pitch. They did hit his changeup hard when they made contact (.367 AVG/.612 SLG); that one was worth +6 runs, which is to say, not great.

Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, it’s been an impressive campaign for Rodón, one that has rejuvenated his career and ought to generate a multiyear deal when he hits free agency this winter, though it’s difficult to imagine him leaving the White Sox given how well he clicked with Katz.

First things first, he can help extend the White Sox’s season with Tuesday’s start against the Astros, and he’ll be working on 12 days of rest. Within the small samples of this year’s data, he’s generally pitched better on more rest:

Carlos Rodón by Days of Rest
Days G IP HR/9 K% BB% ERA FIP vFA
4 6 36.0 1.50 32.9% 4.2% 3.25 3.22 96.4
5 5 25.0 1.08 36.4% 9.1% 2.88 2.73 94.9
6+ 13 71.7 0.50 34.9% 7.1% 1.76 2.00 95.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Velocity via Baseball Savant.

I’m not sure there’s much to read into the average velocities there, except perhaps that the White Sox felt less need to give Rodón extra rest when he was really pumping gas from late May to early July. Over that stretch, he produced seven of his eight-highest single-game average velocities — all 96.2 mph or better — with six of those starts on four or five days of rest.

More important is how well Rodón’s stuff matches up with the Astros. Against all four-seam fastballs from lefties, Houston hit for a .255 AVG, .442 SLG, and .344 wOBA, but on those of 94 mph or higher, that drops to a .207 AVG, .335 SLG, and .276 wOBA; Rodón averaged 97.0 in that combined one-hitter. While that’s encouraging so long as Rodón’s velocity shows up, the Astros hit sliders from lefties at a .253 AVG/.452 SLG clip, with a .338 wOBA, and on ones 85 mph or higher (Rodón averaged 85.8 mph), that only dropped to a .240 AVG/.426 SLG with a .327 wOBA. In an elimination game, no pitcher is going to have a long leash, but the White Sox have put Rodón in the best position to help extend their season, something that nobody could have counted upon a year ago.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This thing about extra rest for Rodon makes me wonder if you can fill out an entire rotation of guys who pitch better in a six-man rotation than five. It’s also relevant because Rodon is a free agent, the Angels need pitchers, and their best returning pitcher (probably) is the reason they do a 6-man rotation to begin with.

If RA Dickey was still playing (or some other knuckleballer with a rubber arm) I’d say you could also try running a 5-man rotation out there and just throw Dickey out there twice in the same rotation. That would be funny.

In any case, the Angels have Ohani, Sandoval, Suarez, and probably Barria, Detmers, and Canning. That’s six but it then they don’t have any depth beyond that, and it would probably be better for them if they had another sure thing at the top of the rotation. Even if they did bring back Alex Cobb they probably can’t count on him dominating quite like that again.

MRDXol
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MRDXol

I do not think a pitcher with a long injury history like Rodon is a good fit with the Angels, for either player or team, who do not have a great track record in recent years of keeping SPs healthy. I tend to agree with Jaffe, if Rodon and the White Sox ran it back after they nontendered him (and he reportedly had offers for more $ elsewhere) then I doubt Rodon doesn’t return to CHW after this year.