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White Sox: Carlos Rodon’s Unconventional Development

Carlos Rodon has experienced numerous up and downs in his major league career, but Ken Sawilchik writes that we may finally be seeing the real Carlos Rodon.

In the years leading up to the rebuild, the White Sox treated prospects like items at a garage sale. Either they’d find something that was cheap and useful or they’d discard it hoping to get something better. Carlos Rodon represents the former, making his major league debut on April 21, 2015, at age 22 after only eight minor league starts.

How Others Compare

As the number three pick in the first round of the 2014 draft out of North Carolina State University, you’d expect Rodon to have a shorter incubation period than that of a mere mortal. However, Rodon spent surprisingly little time at the minor league level. For some perspective, Michael Kopech, drafted out of high school in the first round in 2014, currently has 78 starts in his minor league career.

To further the comparison, Lucas Giolito notched 97 starts and Reynaldo López 78 before making it to the big leagues full-time. While it may feel like Rodon has been around forever, he only has 70 starts under his belt since joining the White Sox in 2015 putting him at approximately the same level of professional service time as the other pitchers listed here.

The Earl Weaver Method

Another former White Sox first-round pick, Chris Sale also spent shockingly little time in the minor leagues pitching only 10 innings in Triple-A before making the jump to the majors. However, Sale logged 94.1 innings out of the bullpen, a number of them as a closer before becoming a full-time starter in 2012. This is a strategy Earl Weaver successfully used for developing starting pitchers. Mark Buehrle also took this path making 25 appearances out of the bullpen back in 2000. So one could argue that even two of the White Sox all-time greats had more development time than Rodon.

Developing Consistency

Ask a minor leaguer, what they are working on and most of them will tell you consistency.  This makes some semblance of sense, if you are the third overall pick in the draft with a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider, you’ve got the talent to play at the major league level. Development typically comes in the form of optimizing those skills.

For an example of an uneven performance, look no further than a bizarre start at Wrigley Field last July. Rodon showed both his promise and his limitations. His final stat line displayed four runs, seven hits, three walks and a mind-boggling 11 strikeouts in four innings before being pulled after 98 pitches.  That’s a year’s worth of inconsistency condensed into one outing.

The minor leagues also offer an opportunity to do the unconventional in order to achieve a goal. A recent article in Baseball America on the development of pitchers at the minor league level discussed a tactic the Red Sox used with Kopech when he was in their system.  Here’s what one scout observed.

“Second start he was stretch-only, so, without talking to anyone in the Red Sox organization, I can say they’re simplifying things for him. His delivery was way out of control, and I put that in my first report,” Isaac said. “That allowed me to project a little. They’ve got to get this guy on-line. He’s athletic enough to do it. His arm is plenty live. He just needs to work on his direction to the plate.”

Once again, Rodon having four years of college under his belt should have been much more refined then Kopech coming out of high school, but this exemplifies the impact that missing out on the minor leagues can have. Players don’t have the luxury of experimenting when the team is trying to win games as the White Sox were in 2015 and 2016.

By the Numbers

In eight starts this year, it appears that Rodon has reduced his wildness. While his ball-to-strike ratio is a league average 62% and consistent with his career numbers, he seems to have much less game-to-game variance. In 2018, he is showing a low of 59% with a high of 69%. Compare that to 2017, when he ranged from 49%-71% and 2016, where he charted a 46% – 69% ratio.

Another positive trend is WHIP, this figure has been on a steady downward trajectory since his rookie year where he posted a 1.443 down to his current 1.186. According to Fangraphs, a WHIP of 1 is excellent, putting his current number well above average. This number also lends itself to consistency as obviously walks (which are also down) are a part of it. His hits and home runs allowed are on par with his previous numbers. If he can improve in those two categories, he’ll have made a solid leap forward on his quest to become a front-line major league starter.

Evaluation Time

Now that Carlos Rodon is approaching the experience level of the majority of other top pitching prospects at or near the major league level for the White Sox, it’s time to make a solid assessment of his long-term value.  Of course, coming off an injury does allow him a bit of an extension to that grace period.

Rodon becomes arbitration eligible in 2019 and cannot become a free agent until 2022. With injuries to some top pitching prospects, there is no rush to make a decision as the whether he is part of the rebuild or a potential trade chip. There is also a shortage of left-handed pitching in the farm system increasing his value to the White Sox.

Regardless, the balance of 2018 and 2019 are important years in the decision-making process. Up until now, he’s been developing under more intense scrutiny than most pitchers with his experience level receive. Once proven healthy, those days are in the rearview mirror. It’s time for Carlos Rodon to validate his lofty draft status and demonstrate he belongs. If his current numbers, continue the trend in the right direction, it appears he may achieve just that.

Follow Ken Sawilchik on Twitter–Feature Photo Credit: Jon Durr/Getty Images North America

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