There was a time, not too long ago, that the Chicago White Sox were rich in left-handed pitching. Just a year ago they had three excellent lefties in their rotation, each in a different stage in their career. The top-flight ace in Chris Sale; the up-and-coming/criminally underrated Jose Quintana; and the young, high draft pick rich in promise in Carlos Rodon. For a fleeting moment, this looked like the backbone of a new era in Chicago. But things change quickly as rebuilding comes into vogue, and with the recent release of Derek Holland the Sox are down to a single lefty for pitching coach Don Cooper to work his magic on. Can Carlos Rodon realize his potential, and carry on this recent legacy of great southpaws on the South Side?
Right now it’s hard to feel optimistic about it. Rodon’s star has dimmed in 2017. He both started and will end the season on the disabled list with a shoulder issue. Earlier in the year, at Baseball Prospectus’s South Side subset, Ryan Schultz wrote that we should lower expectations on Rodon. Which makes sense, especially now with this lost season. But at the same time, we’re talking about a 24-year-old pitcher. Making any real conclusion about his future right now is a bit foolish. He still has every chance to explode or implode. His career has barely begun.
There’s plenty to be excited about with Rodon, too. His repertoire has lived up to the pre-draft profiles, as he sits in the mid-90’s with his fastball and has a hard biting slider he uses to great effect. In 2016 he got a swinging strike on his slider 18.8 percent of the time, which surpasses his former teammate Sale both last year (16.1 percent) and this (15.8). Rodon doesn't have the changeup that Sale has flashed, but he has thrown one 11.4 percent of the time the last two years and generated a whiff 11.5 percent of the time. The stuff is there, but Rodon has never had the control necessary for a low walk rate. In the minors he got it down to 11.1 percent in 2016 along with 7.6 in the majors, but he wavered back up in his limited stint this year. But, as we’ll touch on in a bit, he is refining his mechanics and could get it under control sooner rather than later.
Losing a huge chunk of his third season can only be considered a disappointment for Rodon. But in the time he spent on the mound, he showed some considerable growth. The numbers don't really demonstrate much,but he still elevated his strikeout rate by two points to 25.6 percent. Again, he was dealing with injury all year, so the very fact he didn't backslide any remarkable amount is at least encouraging. One black mark on his year though, a 19.0 percent HR/FB ratio, far above the 13.5 rate he's put up for his career. Basically, if he were sticking to his career homer rate (which is a little hard to judge because it's all of three years and has gone up each season, but 13.5 is right around league average anyway) then he would have given up 8.5 home runs, so round up to nine. According to linear weights, a home run is worth about 1.65 runs. That's three less home runs, or 4.8 runs. I'll be charitable and say Rodon would have allowed six fewer runs with a career-average home run rate this year. My rationale is, maybe that awful start he had against the Dodgers where he gave up four home runs wouldn't have snowballed so bad if he'd given up one or two fewer there, and perhaps he’d have dodged the three run dinger against Willson Contreras in July. If we’re playing in hypotheticals, I’ll allow good luck. I’m a nice guy. Anyway, by dint of giving up six less runs, Rodon's 2017 ERA slides down to 3.38. For a third year pitcher on a bad team, that gives a lot more hope than something in the mid-4's. It also outperforms the 3.84 PECOTA projection. So does his 69.1 innings, by 12.
I realize this is specious reasoning and some convenient math, but Rodon is just that close (especially because of a low innings count) to a decent third year that was merely cut short by injury. It totally changes whatever narrative might follow him into 2018. Adding to that, and if TexasLeaguers.com's mapping is to be believed, he's gained some considerable separation with his slider. Here's how his pitches moved a year ago:
Now here's this season:
Along with the break, he's evidently put in some work to refine his release point, which can ultimately lead to greater success due to deception and repeatability in his work:
Again, we're dealing with less than half the innings he threw a year ago. He's had less chance to lose the release point due to fatigue, and less chance to throw a few hangers. But that's still remarkable bite on the slider compared to a year ago. As to why, Baseball Savant suggests he's added a decent amount of spin, boosting the RPM from 2321 last year to 2452 on average this year. More spin should mean more break, and Rodon is creating a monster in that slider. His 2373 RPM slider places him 160th in baseball in that metric over the last two years, but if that higher rate keeps, it places him near 100th, above Clayton Kershaw in that respect and hounding Carlos Carrasco, who has a mean slider in his own right.
Rodon is 24, he’s still big as a house, he's spent most of a vital year to the DL, and the future is nothing but a haze of mystery and uncertainty. But he showed advancement in his assumed strikeout pitch and had some bad luck. The walks are still an issue, though he could shave a percent or two off with continued refinement. There’s more good than bad here. With Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech edging towards full-time work in the majors, having Rodon come back around in 2018 could be a major step in the Sox rebuild. It’s easy to forget about players we’ve seen a lot and haven’t lived up to whatever elevated expectations we place upon them. But hopefully Rodon at least remembers what he can be.
Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball things at Beyond the Box Score, and Indians things at Let’s Go Tribe. He talks baseball things on the Mostly Baseball Podcast. His cat eats his shoes. He is on Twitter @merrittrohlfing.