The last time the Yankees spent $160 million on the top left-handed starter in free agency, it went pretty well for everyone involved.
There’s quite a bit less certainty around this $160 million man than there was about CC Sabathia almost 13 years ago to the day, however. We all may be inclined to ask: What kind of pitcher are we getting in Carlos Rodón?
Let me tell you a quick story about Carlos Rodón, baseball pitcher. On July 18, 2021, I had planned on going to the Sunday afternoon White Sox game, as I do quite often in the summer. I rolled out of bed at roughly 11:30, looked at my phone, and groaned — partially because of the things that kept me in bed until 11:30, and partially because I saw the lineup that the Sox were planning on putting on the field against the Houston Astros. A Tony La Russa getaway day classic. I texted the lineup to my now-PSA colleague Esteban Rivera. It seemed, to paraphrase myself, that the Sox were blissfully happy to let Rodón do his thing and leave the rest in the hands of God.
I tell this story not just to reminisce on a funny text, or to point out that Rodón threw seven scoreless innings innings against the Astros. I tell it because out of the hundreds of baseball games I’ve ever witnessed in person, I don’t know if I ever saw a more dominant pitcher than the way Rodón carved through a deadly Houston lineup that day. It’s really hard to make Yordan Alvarez seem timid in the batter’s box, but Rodón had perhaps the most fearful left-handed hitter in the game looking like an amateur, what with the triple-digit fastballs he powered by him repeatedly.
It was the kind of performance that leaves a profound impression. The quality of the Yankees bullpen means that when Rodón is at his best, opponents’ windows of opportunity will be minuscule. If he can get you through seven innings, forget it. He doesn’t quite work with the technical mastery of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, or wow you with a deep bag of tricks like a Shohei Ohtani or Max Scherzer. It might sound outlandish, but the best way to comp Rodón might be to a left-handed Jacob deGrom: Pitchers in possession of a fastball-slider combination so viciously unhittable that they have little need to use anything else. Their game is brute force, but it’s beautiful in its execution and in the way it makes the game’s most accomplished hitters look silly in their complete inability to do anything about it.
He hasn’t had much reason to try much else, though he will occasionally break out a first-pitch curveball or a change-of-pace changeup to a right-hander. He threw his fastball 61.7 percent of the time in 2022, fifth-highest among MLB starters, with a -48 cumulative Run Value on Savant over the past two seasons that’s easily the most in the game. The video didn’t lie: the heater has the highest zone whiff rate among all starters since 2021.
His slider took a slight step back from last year, when it had the fourth-best Run Value on a per-pitch basis among all starters, but was still excellent. It garnered whiffs in 2022 at virtually the same rate (39%) as the year prior, with a simply elite .217 wOBA/.211 xwOBA split instead of 2021’s otherworldly .147/.160 line. That slider has been his calling card since his days as an ace at North Carolina State, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t continue to be one of the world’s premier breaking balls for something like the tenth year running.
Speaking of NC State, there are reasons beyond his stuff to be excited about Rodón’s arrival in the Bronx. Those interested in the inevitable questions of exposure, bright lights, and a tough media probably won’t have to waste much breath: He’s been doing this for a long time, and it makes you feel nice and comfortable about his ability to help the team late in the season when it matters most. He may only have two elite seasons under his belt, but it’s not like they came out of nowhere. Take a moment to watch a young Rodón throw ten innings allowing just a single unearned run in an incredible 2013 ACC Championship game:
Games like that were the reason that I was so thrilled as a young White Sox fan when he was leapfrogged by Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek in the 2014 Draft. That quickly brought him to the big leagues for a re-loading Sox team after just 11 minor league appearances (34.2 innings), where he showed flashed of brilliance and stretches of dominance but simply failed to stay healthy for any length of time. Elbow and shoulder injuries entirely derailed him by the conclusion of the 2020 season, but after completely remaking his mechanics and training approach following that campaign, those issues look to remain firmly in the rearview mirror. It only took a few starts in 2021 to realize that he was different, and there shouldn’t be much doubt that the Rodón the Yankees are signing is a remade pitcher from the one that struggled to piece together health and effectiveness from 2016-18.
One last anecdote that, hopefully, will make you feel good about the Yankees’ second major entry into the offseason. Three years before that Houston game, in June of 2018, I had nothing to do on a Thursday afternoon, so I went to see Rodón pitch against Cleveland. With only about 2000 other fans in the crowd (the 2018 White Sox weren’t a can’t-miss event), I was able to mosey down just about as close behind home plate as I’ll ever hope to be this side of a day at the lottery. I was close enough that the bald man I struck up a conversation with turned out to be a scout, a discovery which I’m sure he wishes I hadn’t made.
Rodón labored early in that game, allowing a leadoff homer to Francisco Lindor and walking in a second run during a laborious third inning. After the run-scoring walk to Edwin Encarnacion, a visibly agitated Rodón’s fastball velocity — which had to this point been sitting in the 92-93 mph range — spiked back up to 95 mph for the subsequent inning-ending strikeout to Yan Gomes. I made note of it to the scout, who shrugged, and said “no idea why he doesn’t just do that all the time.”
Well, he figured out how to do it all the time. Now, the Yankees are about to be a whole lot better for it.