Is Rodón the Right Game 4 Decision?

Needing to win two consecutive games to advance to the American League Championship Series, the Chicago White Sox got a bit of a breather on Monday thanks to storms that swept through the area, postponing Game 4 until Tuesday afternoon. The extra day of rest gave the White Sox an interesting option: do you stick with the previous rotation plan and start Carlos Rodón for Game 4 or do you take the opportunity to use Lance Lynn or Lucas Giolito, the Game 1 and 2 starters? White Sox manager Tony La Russa opted to stick with Rodón. Is that the right choice?

The first step in answering that question is to see if the projections give any obvious guidance. As it currently stands, with Rodón starting Tuesday and Lynn going in a possible Game 5, ZiPS projects the White Sox with a 25.2% chance of winning the final two games of the series. Moving Lynn and Giolito into those spots increases Chicago’s win probability to 26.6%. That’s is a relatively minor change. The Astros get a larger boost from their decision to move Lance McCullers Jr. up to Game 4, skipping José Urquidy and then likely turning to Framber Valdez for Game 5.

A percentage point or two doesn’t make a move obvious, and while projections are highly useful, they cannot always take the whole micro situation into account, no matter how clever their developers imagine themselves to be.

And there’s a significant factor the projections aren’t necessarily accounting for that suggests turning to Lynn is a solid idea. As Jay Jaffe detailed earlier today, Rodón had a wonderful comeback season in 2021, not only reaching his former level of play but taking it to new heights. But his velocity also dipped significantly at the end of the year:

When Rodón faced the Astros earlier this year, his average fastball hit 97 mph (June) and 96 mph (July). After early August, however, he didn’t hit 95 mph as an average, and in his final start, against the Reds, his velocity was down to a hair under 91 mph. That’s a notable change in such a short period. Per the Chicago Tribune, however, his manager is more concerned about Rodón’s location than his velocity:

“I think it would be better, the more velocity he has, the better his chances are of getting a lineup like that out,” La Russa said Monday. “I think he’ll have more than he did that last game against Cincinnati, but let’s wait and see. If he has more and he is throwing in the middle of the plate, it’s not better than if he had less and was hitting his spot, so that’s why it’s pitching, not throwing.”

Velocity is a serious concern, though. While the Astros ranked at the top of the field in crushing fastballs in 2021, whether we’re talking slower or harder heaters, there was a huge change in their absolute performance at different velocities. Against fastballs 92 mph and slower, the Astros hit .309 (sixth) and slugged .579 (fourth). Against the faster stuff (95 mph and above), Houston hit .258 and .442, respectively. These are slightly different groups of pitchers, but once you look at fastball velocity vs. performance for individual pitchers, the harder fastballs still fare better. Teams love velocity for good reason!

There’s also evidence that the Astros may be superior against left-handed pitching. ZiPS uses actual lineups for its game-by-game projections and sees Houston’s lineup scoring 5.52 runs per game against a league-average righty and 5.6 per game against southpaws, though this is already accounted for in the projection change I cited above.

However, there are factors going in the other direction, that, while somewhat subjective, may have been in La Russa’s mind when choosing to keep the rotation as-is. While there’s very little expected difference between four and five days rest, the pitchers will be aware of what the schedule says and adjust their preparation accordingly. Now, I have little doubt that Lynn and Giolito can adjust to changing expectations, but it is a question mark floating out there, something you’d like to avoid in a must-win game. And while I hope that nobody will begrudge me the claim that I’m more fluent in baseball analytics than La Russa is, he knows a lot more than I do about how his individual pitchers are feeling.

Along those same lines, the White Sox also have the best understanding of how hard they think Rodón is capable of throwing in Game 4, information they likely aren’t too keen on trumpeting publicly, especially to the Astros. If he’s actually capable of throwing 94 or 95 mph against Houston, it would dispel some of these worries.

Another concern is that Lynn did not look sharp against the Astros in his first start, nor did Giolito. While this may not have any predictive value, it doesn’t feel great to up-end your rotation plans for pitchers who struggled against this very same team a few days ago. In any case, if Rodón is ineffective, I expect Chicago to turn to Lynn or Giolito, with both available out of the bullpen today, before the game gets too far out of hand.

There’s also the argument that, in light of his comeback and his status as a long-time member of the team, the White Sox don’t want to deny Rodón one last chance to shine in the postseason while wearing black and white. His only other postseason performance was a brutal one in last year’s Wild Card loss to Oakland, and if he departs this offseason in free agency, there’s some appeal to getting him a big White Sox playoff moment. I’d note that this is not a particularly utilitarian argument, but managers don’t go just by the numbers.

Should the White Sox start Rodón or Lynn? In the end, I’ve landed on “I’m not sure,” which is rather unsatisfying as someone with strong opinions. But maybe that’s the best scenario for us as fans, one where we don’t need to second-guess a decision too heavily, leaving the series’ fate up to the players on the field.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Sounds like Lynn will be available in relief today, and Giolito would most likely get Game 5. Lynn didn’t look like a good matchup vs. Houston from the outset because he’s so reliant on his fastball, and it showed in Game 1.

So I don’t think the question is Rodón-Lynn vs. Lynn-Giolito, but Rodón-Giolito vs. Lynn-Giolito. I think you take your chances with Rodón, and have Lynn ready to back him up if he runs into trouble.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

This I think is the plan. Kopech seems to be the only one “unavailable” today. It is all hands on deck. If they throw everyone, I could see a roster move for Keuchel/Kopech tomorrow…

2 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

I think this is 100% the right call. There’s a decent chance that they call on Lynn to get them through innings 5-7 or some part thereof, and perhaps it gets moved up earlier if Rodon doesn’t have it.