Before the 2016 season started, all reasonable Chicago White Sox fans knew that a good number of things would have to break just right for the team to be legitimate contenders come September and October. Improvements had been made, but there were still multiple holes in the roster that raised enough concern for what looked to be on paper an 83-84 win team. One of the more noticeable holes was the back end of a rotation manned by the shuffling corpse of John Danks‘ once illustrious career and Mat Latos attempting to avoid making the quick slide into anonymity. Chris Sale was going to be great, Jose Quintana was going to be very good, and Carlos Rodon was going to make the leap forward and give the Sox a troika of nightmarish southpaws that could dominate any three-game series.
A scorching hot 17-8 April helped stake the team an early lead in the division. No one is foolish enough to think that the Sox are a true talent 110-win team, but banked wins are banked wins and no one can take that away from them. A mid-May 2-8 slide was a bit of a cold shower on those hopes, but we’re still looking at a multi-game divisional lead in late May. With an offense that looks to be average at best, the pitching staff has more than answered the call by giving up a league-fewest 3.50 R/G. Sale has been the brilliant beast we’ve come to know and love, even with a reduction in strikeouts. Quintana somehow continues to leap forward, becoming a pitcher who would be an ace on more than a few other teams. Latos has existed and Danks was mercifully put out to pasture.
But Rodon has struggled, and somewhat mightily. After a solid enough rookie season that saw him debut as a more or less league average pitcher (103 ERA+), he’s looked like anything but the future multi-time All Star fans felt promised with the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft. So what’s happened? What’s wrong with the latest golden child and why hasn’t Don Cooper magically fixed this yet?
The short answer is “he’s 23-years-old”. The long answer is “he’s a 23 year old pitcher with fewer than 200 major league innings under his belt, calm down”. White Sox fans have been spoiled when it comes to pitcher development. Sale didn’t so much hit the ground running as he took off at a Usain Bolt-ian sprint and didn’t look back. Quintana joined the team as a 23-year-old non-prospect and the worst he’s done since is two 113 ERA+ seasons. Danks had a rough rookie year in a lost season but bounced back to have a four-year stretch over which he was worth 13.3 WARP. Gavin Floyd went from a No. 4 pick Phillies failure to a middle of the rotation stalwart after one rough year with Chicago as a 24-year-old.
But other than Floyd, none of them had close to the prospect hype of Rodon. Rodon was a legitimate option to be the top pick of his draft. And he made the majors within one year of being picked. But he hasn’t broken out yet! WHY!?!?!
Because he’s a 23-year-old pitcher and greatness is not promised. He struggles with his command. His control is less than ideal at times and he looks very uncomfortable pitching out of the stretch. And even with all of this, he’s still walking 1.32 fewer hitters per nine innings than he did last year. The only noticeable negative changes in his peripherals are that his HR/9 has almost doubled from 0.71 to 1.38 and that his BABIP is a little up from .315 to .327. The BABIP spike is so small and over such a tiny period of time that it can only be seen as a blip. When you look deeper into the massive HR/9 increase, you realize that it’s just as meaningless an aberration. Yeah, it’s been rough to watch but his FB% and LD% have both decreased from last season while his GB% has gone up. You know, the exact changes you would love to see in your incredibly young pitcher.
Honestly, Rodon’s struggles so far boil down to three bad starts: 4/18 vs the Angels, 4/29 at Baltimore, and 5/10 at Texas. Baltimore and Texas are currently 5th and 6th in the AL in runs scored per game, so it’s not like there’s anything surprising about getting rocked by them, especially at stadiums known for increasing offense. The Angels’ offense ranks 9th, but that game was just a clear and obvious example of a night when Rodon just had nothing to give. Obviously you can’t just throw away a game, but if you eliminate that 0.1 inning start he had against Los Angeles his season ERA drops down to 3.63 and no one is left wondering what’s going on.
Carlos might never be as good a pitcher as Sale or Quintana. He might even wind up being a complete bust. But looking for underlying reasons as to why he’s struggling when there just aren’t any there after nine starts isn’t going to lead to any answers.
Lead Photo Credit: Jerry Lai – USA Today Sports Images