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Is this finally the year of the Carlos Rodon breakout?

Rodon’s finish to 2016 was encouraging, but was it a harbinger of things to come?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment he was drafted third overall in 2014, we’ve been asking ourselves how soon it would be before Chicago White Sox starter Carlos Rodon became an ‘ace’. It was just a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’ it would occur.

We all thought last year might be the year. It was Rodon’s first full season in the majors, and as such, he’d had some time to get his feet wet and acclimate to baseball at the highest level during his rookie. 2016 was supposed to bring us a better, more comfortable Rodon. And it did, just not to the extent we’d all hoped for.

Rodon threw 165 innings, and by just about anyone’s wins-above-replacement measure, he was at least an average starter. A 23-year-old performing that well in his first full season as a big leaguer should thrill just about all of us, and yet, because expectations were so high, we were left wanting a little more.

Early last season, FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris dove into why 2016 might be the year for Rodon’s breakout. The adjustment Sarris keyed in on the most was the shift in Rodon’s horizontal release point, specifically how he moved farther and farther towards the third base side of the rubber in his rookie season, and why that shift could portend better command going forward.

However, Sarris also hedged his optimism by noting that if Rodon was going to live up to expectations, he’d have to continue to develop his changeup. So before we dig into why 2017 may or may not be his breakout season, let’s take a look at those two things to see whether Rodon progressed or stagnated in those areas.

As Sarris noted in his piece, the farther Rodon shifted towards third, the better his control became. For a left-handed pitcher, that’s pretty intuitive. The farther towards third you are, the less you have to throw across your body to hit the zone. So let’s take a look at his horizontal release point from the last two seasons to see whether he was able to keep that up:

carlos-rodon-chicago-white-sox-horizontal-release-point Brooks Baseball

Where a pitcher stands on the rubber isn’t the only factor in horizontal release point, of course, but Rodon’s motion and delivery were almost identical to 2015. So despite telling Sarris the following, Rodon didn’t really stick with an adjustment that he seemed to believe had a big positive impact on his command:

“It helped me get my two-seamer on the corner to righties. I set up closer to middle-in against righties and then I could catch the outside corner with my sinker. If I start on the first-base side, I have to throw it towards the hitter and hope to catch the corner” - Carlos Rodon

So if Rodon stopped doing something that ostensibly helped his command, you would probably expect his numbers in those areas to decline. However, that wasn’t really the case.

Rodon Command Numbers, 2015-16

Year BB% K-BB% Zone%
Year BB% K-BB% Zone%
2015 11.7% 11.2% 41.5%
2016 7.6% 16.0% 45.9%

So while a move away from the third base side may have made those who knew about it nervous at first, it didn’t prevent Rodon from making significant strides with regards to his command.

But what about the changeup? Did Rodon make any progress with that pitch? Again, the results are mixed.

carlos-rodon-chicago-white-sox-changeup-usage Brooks Baseball

He started out 2016 hardly throwing a change at all, but as the season progressed he came to rely on it more and more. In the last two months of 2016, especially, the changeup was a regular part of his arsenal. Though it didn’t start out that way, Rodon ultimately threw a higher percentage of changeups in 2016 (10.4 percent) than 2015 (9.1 percent). Mission accomplished, in that sense.

However, just throwing a pitch more doesn’t mean it’s all of a sudden an effective weapon. Despite the higher usage, Rodon’s changeup induced fewer swings, fewer whiffs per swing, and fewer ground balls per balls in play. Batters hit it two miles-per-hour harder in 2016 compared to 2015. While most of those categories improved a bit as Rodon threw the changeup more in August and September, the changeup still wasn’t as good as it was during his rookie season, and remember, even then people didn’t think it was very good.

Getting back to Sarris’ article projecting Rodon’s possible breakout in 2016, of the two major things he cited as reasons why Rodon might be turning the corner, Rodon didn’t end up following through on either one of them. And while Rodon’s move away from third on the rubber may have helped his command more than hurt it, the changeup didn’t just fail to improve, it regressed. In the end, he was “just” a league-average starter.

So why then should we believe that 2017 is the year when Rodon becomes an ace?

Earlier, we briefly mentioned Rodon’s August and September as it related to his changeup, but his overall performance in those two months is the reason, if you’re looking for one, to think that this is indeed the year.

We’ll cheat a little bit in our analysis here and include Rodon’s July 31 start, as it was his first since July 5 after he’d sprained his left wrist falling down the dugout steps. From the time he came off the disabled list to the end of the season, Rodon was spectacular:

Rodon July 31 to end of season

Pre-July 31 22.2% 7.8% 14.4% 15.5% 4.43 90 MPH
Post-July 31 25.3% 7.2% 18.0% 11.4% 3.49 88.4 MPH

Just 20 starting pitchers had a K-BB% of at least 18 percent during the entire 2016 season, and only nine did so while also having as high a K% and as low a BB% as Rodon had over the season’s final two months. Outside of a full season of strong performance, a great finish is the best way to create optimism heading into the following season. Rodon’s August and September ensured the hype train would keep on rolling.

If he’s going to maintain that momentum into this year and put up the kinds of results we’re hoping for, however, he’ll have to overcome the many shortcomings on his own roster.

As has been written about extensively, the 2016 White Sox were far and away the worst catcher framing team in baseball, and one of the worst overall since those statistics have been tracked. The primary culprits — Tyler Flowers, Alex Avila and Dioner Navorro — behind those numbers have left, but Chicago hasn’t done much to improve upon them by signing known pitch framers. Baseball Prospectus is still projecting all three of their options at catcher to be below-average in that area.

Along those same lines, the White Sox also had one of the worst defenses last season. A full season of Tim Anderson at shortstop could help that a bit, but one of the White Sox many major moves this offseason was trading away arguably the best defensive right fielder in baseball.

We would also be remiss to not mention that just like Rodon entered 2016 having to make an adjustment to a full season of major league baseball, he’ll now have to enter 2017 helping to anchor the staff of a team that’s not looking to compete in the near future. If the White Sox do indeed move on from Jose Quintana at some point, Rodon will become the ace on the team by default, if not by performance. It will be interesting to see how he handles that, if a Quintana trade does indeed happen.

Either way, looking forward to Rodon’s 2017 is an exercise in cautious optimism. PECOTA, ZiPS and Steamer all believe he’ll be a two-to-three win player once again, but if you want to get hyped up about those final two months, it would be hard to blame you.

Rodon already looks like the bridge between two generations of White Sox baseball, and if he comes out and shoves in 2017 then he, not the players acquired via trade, could be the foundation for the next great team on the south side, whenever that may be.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.