Heading into the 2021 season, the pressure was on Carlos Rodon to perform for the Chicago White Sox.
Of course, the pressure is constantly on any former top-five draft pick. This is especially the case for a high-octane left-hander who arguably possessed one the deadliest breaking balls at the time he was drafted.
Now, Rodon produced some solid outings within his first six seasons with the White Sox – from 2015-20, Rodon, in 97 total games (92 games started) compiled a 4.14 ERA in 536.2 innings pitched. However, the production was not what Chicago had in mind when they drafted the NC State alum third-overall in the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
When adding in the fact that Rodon underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and was non-tendered in December of 2020, one would automatically assume the draft selection was a bust.
The question is simple. What made the historic performance possible for a left-hander who battled injuries inconsistencies through his first six years of MLB action?
However, Chicago almost immediately signed the now-28-year-old to a one-year deal on Jan. 30, 2021 and automatically reaped the benefits from it on Apr. 14, as Rodon twirled a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. If not for hitting Roberto Perez on the foot with an inside slider with one out in the ninth inning, Rodon would have pitched a perfect game in what amount to a 8-0 rout.
To truly answer the question on how Rodon achieved the feat, it is best to understand his pitch velocity and control. Before the 2021 season, Rodon’s average four-seam fastball velocity tapped out at 93 miles per hour. In only one season did Rodon’s fastball velocity reach north of 94 mph (94.2 mph in 2016). Even when adding his 2016 season into the mix, the velocity just was not fully there, and when coupled with the control issues (he averaged 3.9 walks per nine innings pitched from 2015-20), the trouble only started to become apparent.
Looking back at Rodon’s 2018 season (his last season where he pitched over 100 innings) can really illustrate these problems. In this clip, notice how lengthy the windup is, starting with the arm leaving the glove and ending with the finish on his release point.
The sheer lack of swiftness in the delivery left a lot to be desired in regard to control – Rodon hit 12 batters in 2018 (a career-high) and possessed a 4.1 BB/9. The problem with the four-seam fastball control, coupled with the wildness in his delivery, only exposed his elite breaking pitches to the extreme, as seen here.
In this clip, Rodon is meaning to place the breaking pitch in the lower quadrant, but instead misses completely and goes well north of the zone entirely. Sure, any pitcher loses their grip on the ball every now and then, and this can be a result.
One could chalk it up as a mistake, right? Well, there is also this:
With this breaking pitch, Rodon intended to go to the glove side on the left-handed Jackie Bradley Jr. Instead, the pitch stayed on the arm side and was promptly hammered into the stands. The sheer lack of bite here was all too apparent for Rodon in 2018. His strikeouts per nine innings pitched (K/9) in 2018 was a career-low (6.7). For someone with an arsenal capable of compiling double-digit strikeouts every game, this was obviously a downgrade.
You get the basic idea at this point. With minimal four-seam fastball velocity, Rodon was forced to be more concise in his pitching delivery. The problem? Rodon’s delivery was anything but concise. This meant less control and less nastiness on his breaking pitches, which he was forced to use in counts he might not have used them in.
Now, Rodon made it an emphasis during the 2020-21 offseason to sharpen the delivery and pick up a tick or two in the velocity department. Tommy John surgery also played a part in regaining the life in the elbow, but as we have seen already, velocity means nothing if you cannot locate.
This now brings us to the no-hitter against Cleveland. You can almost immediately see a difference in the delivery and velocity.
Let’s start with the delivery. Instead of directly facing the catcher before going into the wind-up like he did in the 2018 clips, Rodon is now angled more toward the first base side before he even begins the wind-up. As Rodon begins his wind-up, he keeps his pitching hand closer to the glove, which aids in shortening the delivery and creating more torque as he starts the throw over his body.
The simplified delivery not only cleans up the control, but also increases the velocity. As you can see from the clip, Rodon’s four-seamer clocked in at 95 mph. This is not a fluke — even through two starts this season, Rodon’s four-seam fastball velocity is currently 95.2 mph, a career-high.
The increase in velocity, combined with the reformed delivery, gifted Rodon the confidence and capability to pound the strike zone with absolute authority. Notice the count and where Rodon locates this pitch:
Rodon is not only willing to go down the middle. No, he is able to locate the heater up in the zone to make batter’s chase it, too.
This leaves us with his bread and butter: the breaking ball. Notably, the slider.
Keep in mind this at-bat came after Rodon hit a batter with the slider. However, if you thought Rodon would lay off the breaker to preserve the no-no, you would be wrong. Instead, Rodon used a pitcher’s count to his advantage and went back to his deadliest pitch. Questionable call or not, Rodon’s smoother delivery, coupled with the fastball location early in the count, made the pitch a much more legitimate one to call in his favor.
The better the delivery, the nastier the pitches. The nastier the pitches, the more the hitter guesses. Even though Rodon’s changeup was located in the upper quadrant in the clip below, it did not matter. Rodon’s crispness was too much at this point. The end result for Rodon? A no-hitter to his resume.
Several seasons ago, Rodon looked like a bust of a draft selection. The flatter fastball and shakier delivery meant a less potent left-hander on the mound every five days. Adding in the injuries only made the matter much cloudier.
However, the perseverance through the inconsistencies and injuries brought out the pitcher Chicago thought they were drafting all those years ago. The White Sox yearned for an ace, and while they did not get one then, they very well might have one now.
For a time, the pressure was certainly on Rodon.
It has most certainly passed.