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Carlos Rodón isn’t the injury risk you think he is

How 2021’s mechanical overhaul changed Rodón’s health outlook after five years of IL trips.

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MLB: San Francisco Giants at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Rodón is in the Bronx, and while most are relieved to no longer have Domingo Germán penciled into a rotation spot, there are some who still see fit to grumble about the sum spent to make it happen. The popular argument among those disinclined to enjoy six year contracts or spending $162 million of Hal Steinbrenner’s money is simple: health, or lack thereof. Rodón spent time on the injured list every year from 2016-2018 before finally blowing out and undergoing Tommy John surgery after five starts in 2019. He returned for a brief spell in 2020, but missed the majority of the shortened campaign with shoulder issues. Before his 2021 breakout, it truly was non-stop ailments for the lefty.

The list of maladies was extensive: a sprained wrist; biceps bursitis; shoulder inflammation; elbow inflammation; more shoulder soreness. Almost Mark Prior-esque. Having spent several seasons covering Rodón’s various states of effectiveness at South Side Sox, I thought I’d share some perspective on why there shouldn’t be much concern that the pitcher arriving in New York may resemble the version that White Sox fans saw in 2017-2020.

Let’s briefly condense the story of Rodón’s career into a few GIFs of evolving mechanics. There’s no Baseball Savant video from 2015 available, but highlights from his first major league start are enough to give you a sense of both his upside and his flaws as he entered the bigs:

Rodón hit the injured list for the first time in 2016, but he was mostly the same pitcher, with the same mechanics and profile. They weren’t the prettiest mechanics. But he had the strength and athleticism to have it work, making for a relatively smooth delivery despite a slightly noisy start to the windup:

Things deteriorated from there as the injuries mounted. That first trip to the IL was the result of an unlucky slip at the top of the dugout stairs, but in 2017 and 2018, he was beset by the elbow and shoulder ailments. His mechanics deteriorated badly, as did his fastball velocity:

By the time the 2018 season wrapped up, he didn’t look much like the pitcher from three years prior.

The athleticism in his delivery that he showed earlier in his career was nowhere to be found. In the above video, he gets just the shallowest hinge in his back leg and hip, then releases the ball nearly standing straight up. Rodón is a thick pitcher, listed at 6’3” and 245 pounds in 2022, but with no power in his legs, he wasn’t utilizing much of that strength. Instead, his upper and lower halves fell badly out of sync. Whatever adjustments he felt he needed to make to account for his injuries had become a problem, his velocity continued to plummet, and it ultimately wasn’t surprising when he wound up requiring Tommy John in 2019.

His recovery from Tommy John was spoiled by more shoulder problems, and he only appeared briefly in the shortened 2020 season. When he did, though, he looked a little bit different, making the first significant overhaul of his career by working exclusively from the stretch for the first time:

He wasn’t very effective in that short 2020 stint (7 ER in 7.2 IP), but there were promising signs. Stripping out the wide setup and long leg swing of his natural windup, some athleticism did seem to return to his delivery. He hinged deeper into his back hip, but also continued to have issues syncing his torso and shoulders with his legs. From 2016-2019, his release point trended up while his mechanics deteriorated and velocity trended down. The release point stayed high in 2020, in some part because he still wasn’t fully leveraging his strength by planting his lead leg block early enough to power over it and deliver the ball “out in front,” so to speak. That is, his back foot comes off the ground too early, losing tension in his lower half before he can transfer that energy to his upper half.

When he came back in 2021, things looked different. In 2022, they stayed different:

Having earned a 2020 postseason non-tender, Rodón was aware that his mechanics had become problematic. They were both hampering his effectiveness and preventing him from staying healthy. Injuries lead to more injuries because pitchers and hitters alike change how they move to compensate for pain or problems elsewhere. He knew he wasn’t using his legs enough, and working with the same people who developed the latter-day version of Lance Lynn, he made similar adjustments to quiet the noise in his windup and more efficiently use his energy and strength:

There are a lot of small changes that add up to a lot. The most noticeable is in his setup. Rather than facing the hitter squarely with his feet hip-width apart, he’s angled off towards the visitor’s dugout. His feet are much closer together, facilitating a windup with considerably less arm and leg motion than before. By midseason 2021, he resembled Lynn even more, abandoning the angled approach entirely and beginning his motion from the stretch with a simple rock-step:

It’s a beautiful set of adjustments. There’s exponentially less wasted movement, using a simple stutter-step to gain enough rhythm to maximize energy and athleticism. No body parts swinging everywhere to pile on the injury risk. If you were to freeze-frame it, you’d see that he holds his back leg hinge long enough to slam his front down and then explode forward over with. That’s one possible explanation for the drop in release point: Before, I mentioned how he wasn’t “getting out in front,” but here, he’s clearly getting his torso much further over his front leg.

Rodón’s velocity trailed off at the end of the 2021 season, but rather than acute injury, he and the team simply chalked it up to fatigue. It may sound dubious, but after all, he had thrown twice as many innings in four months as he had in the preceding two and a half years. Then he came out in April 2022 looking good as new, resembling the pitcher in the GIFs up there who mowed down hitters for the first four months of 2021:

While his velocity did trail downwards as the 2022 season played on, you can’t exactly say he wore down; he still averaged 94.9 mph on the heater and ran a 2.03 ERA with 15.5 K/9 in September. He also began semi-regularly demonstrating the ability to execute the classic Verlander strategy of conserving energy and saving the best stuff for the end:

All this isn’t to say that Rodón wasn’t injury prone. He most certainly was. What’s clear is that Rodón is no longer the pitcher he was before the 2021 season. The Yankees aren’t getting injury-prone Carlos Rodón — they’re getting an optimized Carlos Rodón. The fact that he’s been able to reach his ceiling is a testament to health, too. In a nutshell, the key might be that mechanics good enough to maximize his stuff are by their very nature also good enough to mitigate much of the injury risk that he incurred early in his career. Granted, pitchers are also delicate by nature, and anything can happen at anytime. Rodon will surely find the IL at points across his Yankee career. But I suspect Yankees fans won’t be disappointed by Carlos Rodón. Let’s hope he proves me right.