It wasn’t long ago that Carlos Rodon was a hot commodity. Taken third overall in the 2014 amateur draft, Rodon was a polished college arm with a wipeout slider and an easy mid-rotation projection with upside for more. There was a lot to love with little risk, however so far in his major league career, Rodon has been more of a perfectly cromulent number four starter and has yet to exceed 165 innings pitched in a season. After a fairly major shoulder surgery causing him to miss most of 2017 and much of 2018, Rodon came back and posted a mediocre 4.18 ERA and an even more concerning 4.95 FIP (xFIP was even more bearish at 5.40). He posted a 6.71 K/9 (career 8.61), and a poor 4.10 BB/9 (career 3.84).
Generally you can get a pretty good sense of how good a pitcher is from just a couple of the statistics listed. There aren’t many good pitchers who sit at a 4.95 FIP. Yes, he’s returning from a major shoulder surgery and still likely shaking off the rust. I understand all this. I also wouldn’t drag you through an article where I talk about how bad Carlos Rodon is for the sake of it.
Anyone who knows anything about Rodon knows he’s always had a wipeout slider. In Baseball America’s draft report of Rodon back in 2014, they stated “multiple scouts have given Rodon’s slider 80 grades on the 20-80 scale when it is on, though some say he relies on the slider too much”. Is it an 80-grade slider now? Probably not. That being said, there really aren’t a lot of 80-grade pitches in general. While probably not an 80, the slider is still very, very good.
The table below represents a few things, however all the values, usage, and swinging strike rates pertain to the slider. Let’s dive a little deeper.
It’s clear that the slider has been very valuable. It’s also clear that the swinging strike rate has gotten worse over time. However, if we give Rodon ~160 innings in 2019 with his slider pitch value from 2018, we end up at ~12 for the pitch value.
Of the qualified starters last year, here are what the top fifteen in slider values look like. Again, if we gave him 160 innings instead of 120.2, we get a wSL of about 12. Let’s pretend Rodon instead pitches two more innings and becomes qualified at 162 innings. He would slot in between Mike Clevinger and German Marquez respectively, two of the best young pitchers in the game. This top fifteen is pretty good company, even though Matthew Boyd appears to be lost.
If we look at 2018, with a minimum of 120 innings pitched, Rodon and his 9 wSL slot in at 20th overall, sandwiched in between Carlos Carrasco and Walker Buehler. Even without the hoops we jumped through to make Rodon seem like he has one of the best pitches in the league, he still very comfortably possesses one of the best pitches in the league. So let’s look at who had the best slider in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, especially since his name is listed at the top of the list, it’s Patrick Corbin. With a SwStr% of 30.24%, it’s quite a far cry from Rodon’s 16.73%. Hitters slugged .246 against Corbin’s slider in 2018, but against Rodon? An obscene .171. In 2016 it was .216, and in 2015 it was .250 (.303 in an injury-shortened 2017). Make no mistake, while Rodon might not get the gaudy swing-and-miss numbers on his slider ala Corbin, the pitch itself is remarkably difficult to do anything with.
If I may, here is Patrick Corbin’s slider usage from 2012-2018.
2013-2016 was not all that different from what we’re seeing with Rodon’s 2015-2018. Besides the usage, there are obvious parallels between the two. Carlos Rodon’s first two years he put up 3.4 bWAR. Corbin’s first two years he put up 3.5 bWAR. Both have elite sliders but have been inconsistent with both health and performance. However, in 2017 you can see Corbin made a substantial change, one that was well-documented, and in 2018 he threw his slider even more. The last two seasons, Corbin has been worth 7.4 bWAR and was awarded a monster contract from the Washington Nationals. Here’s how the value of his pitch has changed since throwing it more.
Now, more likely went into Corbin’s reinvention. The slider probably went through a rigorous process of pitch design and it looks as if he added a curveball (might just be a slower slider with more depth). If you’re also confused as to why these wSL values look low, it’s because Corbin’s first two full seasons were 2013 and 2017. However, you can obviously see the more he threw it, the more valuable the pitch was, and the more valuable he became.
Let’s circle back to Rodon. His best season was during his debut in 2015. Although it was only 1.6 bWAR, he did so in 139.1 innings with an ERA of 3.75 (3.87 FIP). This also happened to be his highest rate of his slider usage by far, sitting at 30.5%. Remember the Baseball America scouting report? More specifically “some say he relies on the slider too much”? This was back in 2014 which, truly, was a different era for how we evaluate pitchers. A lot has changed. Patrick Corbin throwing ~40% sliders isn’t necessarily an outlier anymore. Rich Hill, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh among others have begun to carve out nice careers for themselves by throwing their best pitch more.
What I’m suggesting is, yes, Carlos Rodon ought to be throwing about 40% sliders. The White Sox should increase his usage as it has worked for many pitchers, and truthfully they’re in a perfect position to experiment. Worst case scenario is he stays where he is now, but the best case is he can realize some of this mid-rotation upside or even become a very interesting bullpen piece. The question now becomes, will the White Sox be the team to do it?
I pose this question because, the White Sox do not strike me as a team on the forefront of analytics. For example, take a look at the fastball and slider usage from when Chris Sale was on the White Sox to now.
The slider usage increased substantially the first year, and even more the second year. In 2016, Sale had an ERA/FIP/xFIP of 3.34/3.46/3.58. In 2017, it was 2.90/2.45/2.65. In 2018 he was even better, posting 2.11/1.98/2.31. Again, there are obviously other factors including the Red Sox’ velocity program, but it’s hard not to point to his mix of pitches as a major contributing factor. The White Sox were notorious for bringing down Sale’s slider usage to help protect his arm, but they may have only been protecting him from becoming one of the best pitchers in the league. You don’t watch that slider and go “he should throw that less”.
Carlos Rodon, in his current form, isn’t very good. Shockingly, he’s still only twenty-six. He’s on a team going nowhere, acting like they need him to go somewhere in the most difficult way which is to just “get better”. This might actually be the finished product, but one of the components of this finished product is one of the best pitches in the league, a pitch in which opposing hitters slugged .171 against it last year. An analytically inclined team like the Astros or Dodgers could have field day with Rodon. The path to stardom might still be here, all it takes is to do more of what he’s good at. Who knew?