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Examining White Sox ace Carlos Rodon’s breakout season

Carlos Rodón was selected third overall in the 2014 draft and was an immediate top prospect upon entering pro ball. He flew to the big leagues, making his MLB debut 10 months after his draft date. Rodón was immediately a productive starter, pitching to a 3.75 ERA/4.20 SIERA across 139 1/3 innings as a 22-year-old. It would’ve been easy for the White Sox to envision him as another top-of-the-rotation arm in an organization that had already produced Chris Sale and José Quintana.

Rodón didn’t make the jump to that level over the next few seasons, however. He was fine from 2016-18, working to a 4.11 ERA/4.46 FIP, but it seemed he’d plateaued as a league-average arm. That’s useful but probably not what many fans had in mind. Then Rodón dealt with a series of injuries that called his future into question. He landed on the 60-day injured list each season from 2018-20, missing time with shoulder and elbow issues. When healthy enough to pitch over the last two seasons, he was unproductive, tossing 42 1/3 innings of 5.74 ERA ball.

Those struggles even led the White Sox to cut ties with Rodón temporarily. Chicago non-tendered him last winter rather than offer him an arbitration salary that would’ve cost a bit more than $4M. He spent a good portion of the offseason unsigned before returning to the South Side on a $3M guarantee in late January. Even at such a low price point, the Rodón reunion looked like a questionable decision given his health woes and recent underperformance. In retrospect, it has proved to be a masterstroke by general manager Rick Hahn and the front office.

Rodón earned a spot in the starting rotation to open the year. He’s stayed healthy to this point and been nothing short of incredible. Rodón has worked to a minuscule 2.31 ERA across 89 2/3 innings. He has struck out a career-high 36.1% of batters faced, a mark that trails only Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Tyler Glasnow among the 146 pitchers with more than 50 innings pitched. Rodón’s also fourth among that group (behind deGrom, Burnes and Max Scherzer) in strikeout/walk rate differential (28.9 percentage points) and SIERA (2.82). The big lefty earned a well-deserved trip to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career in recognition of that strong work.

Unsurprisingly, Rodón’s featuring the best raw stuff of his career. His fastball is averaging 95.9 mph this season, a marked increase over his 92-94 mph range in recent years. Rodón actually first experienced a velocity spike during a couple of relief appearances at the end of last season, but it wasn’t clear whether he’d be able to maintain that with a starter’s workload. He has so far, with no indication of slowing down.

He’s also added a bit more life on the heater at the top of the strike zone, and he’s throwing his slider with increased velocity. Both offerings have been plus, but it’s his fastball that has become almost unhittable. Rodón has generated a league-leading 147 whiffs on four-seamers this season, per Statcast. (His 17.1% swinging strike rate on the offering is tied for third among the 68 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 fastballs.) In 2018 — his most recent season of more than seven starts — batters hit .257 and slugged .422 off Rodón in at-bats ending with a four-seamer. This year, they’re hitting .180 and slugging .275 against the pitch.

It’s only been three months, but Rodón has performed at an ace-caliber level to this point. He famously threw a no-hitter against Cleveland in April, and he’s had an additional seven starts in which he’s allowed three or fewer hits. Rodón has struck out eight or more batters in 13 of his 15 appearances, and he’s shown no obvious ill effects from the league’s foreign substance crackdown. In all likelihood, 2021 will mark his heaviest workload in five years, so he’ll need to continue to prove he’s capable of performing at a high level as his innings total piles up.

The White Sox are highly likely to win the AL Central, and Rodón has put himself in what appears to be a very strong future playoff rotation also including Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and one of Dylan Cease or Dallas Keuchel. He’s in line to again reach free agency this winter, where he’ll be one of the youngest and most productive starting pitchers on the market. There’s no question he’ll fare quite a bit better this time around.


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