1st-Pitch Strikes Help Spark Carlos Rodon's Growth

Rodon has the potential to be "one of the best lefties" in the game, Don Cooper says.

Eli Hershkovich
August 06, 2018 - 3:15 pm
White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon

Jim Young/USA Today Sports

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(670 The Score) From Mark Buehrle to John Danks, from Chris Sale to Jose Quintana, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has aided the growth of left-handed starters on the South Side for years since joining the organization in July 2002.

Despite their respective differences, he’s continued to stress the importance of throwing first-pitch strikes with each of their pitches.

"I had Buehrle, who was throwing the ball 85 miles an hour that could do it," Cooper said. "When you have guys that throw above that, the ingredients are there. They maybe you give one crack at ‘em (to help them succeed), but the best guys are up there in first-pitch strikes.”

Left-hander Carlos Rodon has begun embracing and executing the same concept, and it’s paying dividends. Rodon is throwing first-pitch strikes 59.2 percent of the time, a career-best mark that is 4.4 percentage points higher than his career average, per Fangraphs. Successful results have followed.

Rodon boasts a 1.56 ERA over his last six starts, along with a 23.0 percent strikeout rate and 1.01 WHIP. His hard hit rate for the season is the lowest of his career at 27.0 percent and another 5.8 percentage points lower during his recent six-start stretch. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014, Rodon has seemingly turned a corner, thanks to his refined command.

But Rodon was presented with a few hurdles before starting to reach his potential.

Rodon showcased extreme competitiveness from the get-go as a freshman at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina, but his control issues were evident. Then-Holly Spring coach Rod Whitesell recalled a game in which Rodon walked the bases loaded in the first inning before striking out the side. Once Rodon improved his fastball location, opposing high schoolers feared his name.

"It (reaching high velocity) was effortless," Whitesell said. "He’s a little bit of a maximum-effort guy when he pitches. The ball just explodes out of his hand."

Rodon praised Whitesell for trusting him so much at the varsity level, even with his command struggles at times.

"When you’re throwing balls (at a young age), the coach is like, ‘No, no, no,'" Rodon said. "'We’re not gonna sit here and let you walk everybody.’ We (him and Whitesell) enjoyed the process together."

Rodon went 11-0 with a 1.40 ERA and 135 strikeouts as a senior, propelling Holly Springs to a 4-A state championship. After his freshman campaign at North Carolina State, he was named to the 2012 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. There, he tossed six innings against Cuba, which included current White Sox slugger Jose Abreu on its bench.

Similar struggles with command held Rodon back following his big league call-up in April 2015, as he registered a 1.37 WHIP or worse in each of his first three MLB seasons. With a 1.09 WHIP this season, he's easily on pace for a career-best mark.

Injuries slowed down his development as well. Rodon began suffering from left biceps bursitis in March 2017, placing him on the disabled list for three months. In late September, Rodon was shut down again after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. 

"The last thing you want to do is be in Arizona (to rehab) and watch your team (from afar)," Rodon said. "But (motivation) gets you back on the field. You almost want to prove yourself again."

Rodon still made strides in the film room while sidelined last season. Cooper sat down with him to assess his arsenal -- fastball, slider, sinker and changeup -- and what went into generating each pitch.

"We’re always thinking outside the box," Cooper said. "Thinking in the box gets boring. Certainly, we want to get his delivery right, and I think we have. Stay tall. Stay back. Stay closed. Work over a closed frontside. Not around it."

Added Rodon: "Working back to front, working towards the catcher — to the catcher. Thinking to the glove. Little spots (in the zone) instead of broad areas."

Cooper credited Rodon with improving his slider, as it’s tied with the Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole for the 17th-most valuable slider among American League starters. It’s his second-most used pitch, notching a 24.5 percent usage rate.

Catcher Omar Narvaez’s pitch sequencing has also been instrumental in Rodon’s success. The two have such noteworthy chemistry, Rodon said, that he rarely needs to shake off Narvaez, allowing him to establish a groove early.

Cooper doesn't assign pitchers a certain spot in the rotation, but Rodon has clearly earned the label as the White Sox's current No. 1 starter. His 2.94 ERA ranks eighth among AL starters.

"The stuff he’s got, he can be one of the best lefties (in the game)," Cooper said.

Eli Hershkovich is a producer for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @EliHershkovich.