Four and a half year ago, one of the first articles I published when I started writing about baseball was, essentially, a giant swoon over Carlos Rodon.
Rodon was still a junior at NC State, but with the White Sox holding the third pick in the 2014 draft, there was a chance — although it was slim at the time — that the White Sox would have a chance to draft him. The collegiate season had just begun and he seemed like a pretty good bet to go No. 1 overall, but as the internet filled up with gifs and scouting reports from those who saw the young phenom, it was hard not to dream of a world where the Astros and Marlins both passed him up and he landed in Chicago. That, of course, is exactly what happened.
Fast-forward to present day and while Rodon’s ascent from top draft prospect to ace hasn’t exactly been linear, we may finally be seeing him turn into the pitcher it was easy to dream on four-plus years ago.
On Sunday against the Blue Jays, Rodon threw 116 pitches (his most of the season and tied for third highest pitch total of his career) and generated 13 whiffs, including seven on his 27 sliders. His performance gives him a three-start streak where he’s thrown 22 2/3 innings, allowed four earned runs, walked six, and struck out 21. In nine starts since his return from injury in early June, he’s allowed more than two earned runs just twice and walked more than two just three times.
It’s arguably been the strongest stretch of success of his career, even if the peripherals don’t necessarily back it up. Prior to Sunday’s start, his strikeout rate and swinging strike rate were the lowest of his career, and regardless of which predictive tool you prefer — cFIP, DRA, ERA-, etc. — none like his performance to date all that much.
It’s tough to not look at Rodon’s streak of strong play and not see at least a little bit of luck, but there’s still plenty there to get excited about. When I spoke to Don Cooper about Rodon’s development two years ago, the White Sox pitching coach simplified things, as he’s wont to do.
“We’re looking for him to throw strikes early in the count and get ahead,” Cooper said. “He needs to increase his first-pitch strikes. It’s at 50-52 percent right now. It needs to be higher. 60 percent or above would be ideal.”
It’s a fairly obvious refrain and not uncommonly heard when scouts or coaches discuss pitchers, but for Rodon it’s always been obvious: If he can throw strikes early in the count, his wipeout slider becomes all the more dangerous. Entering Sunday’s start, Rodon was throwing a first-pitch strike 59.8 percent of the time, three percentage points higher than a year ago and six percentage points higher than his career mark.
So if he’s doing that, what’s with the decrease in strikeouts? It’s hard to figure, but one thing we do know is that while he’s not missing as many bats, opponents aren’t making as much hard contact. His line drive percentage is down is down eight percent from a year ago and the percentage of contact he’s allowed that’s classified as “soft contact” is up four percent, while the “hard contact” percentage is down nearly five percent.
It’s only been nine starts, and it’s not exactly uncommon for pitchers of any skill level to reel off streaks of success similar to what we’re seeing out of Rodon right now, but the tools in his arsenal and potential he’s shown between injuries or bouts of wildness give reason for hope that the peripherals don’t tell the whole story about Rodon’s success. Four years ago we were dreaming of him anchoring a White Sox rotation for years to come. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned, but maybe he’s starting to finally realize that potential.
Lead Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports