When I woke up this morning, I said to myself, “this feels like a great day to get some Yankees fans riled up.” So that’s exactly what I’m going to do!
Riled up in a good way, I hope. For this edition of (Missed) Sequence of the Week, let’s have a taste of what the Bronx will be getting when Carlos Rodón takes the hill this spring. This time, I’m covering three plate appearances instead of one. That’s because it only took Rodón a total of 10 pitches to set Manny Machado down on strikes not once, not twice, but three times in a row as a part of a dominant complete game, three-hit effort against the Padres in July of this past year.
Let’s get things going with a first-pitch fastball to the eventual third-place MVP finisher:
That’s 95 mph right over the heart of the plate. Not a great location, but just hard enough and on the hands enough that even though Machado is prepared to swing on the first pitch, he’s still a hair behind on it. Perhaps recognizing that fact — and also perhaps feeling the need for a little aggressiveness with a runner on first base — Rodón and catcher Austin Wynns go with another fastball, this one delivered with a little more oomph.
It’s also a little farther out over the plate, and a little farther up in the zone. Having already been late on a pretty good fastball to hit, he had absolutely no chance on this one. One of the keys to Rodón’s 2021 breakout was altering his mechanics to better leverage his strength and thickness, and one of the results has been an almost Verlander-esque ability to add and subtract velocity while saving the heavy gas for the biggest moments.
As this at-bat continues, it’s increasingly clear that Machado is simply not prepared for what he’s seeing out of Rodón’s hand. Knowing the hitter will need to be aggressively guessing fastball if he wants any chance of catching up to it, all Rodón needed to do was put a slider somewhere in the vicinity of the zone to get Machado almost falling over.
That’s not a super well-executed slider. Though it’s too high for a hitter to do much with it, you won’t find many umpires who will call it a strike even if it brushes the top of the zone. But it doesn’t matter, because Machado is looking for a fastball, and by the time he realizes that it’s a breaking ball diving back towards the zone, it’s far too late. Most sliders just don’t move enough to even tempt a swing on one in that location. But when you have Rodón’s combination of fastball velocity and ride with massive sweep on the slider, you can get away with a lot.
He may have made Machado look like a fool his first time up, but it’s something that virtually never happens twice in a game. In 2022, his OPS when seeing a starter for the first time was a perfectly good .821, but it jumped to an obscene 1.103 the second time around. Knowing that he’s probably going to be a bit more prepared in his second attempt, Rodón switches things up and tries to get ahead with a changeup.
There’s a reason he only threw the cambio 59 times all season. But even though he spiked it, Machado is the kind of hitter you have to think outside the box for. Still, most pitchers would probably avoid opening with their worst pitch just as a change-of-pace, particularly because a 1-0 count to Machado is a death sentence for pitchers. Rodón, however, is unfazed by the hitter’s *checks notes* 1.310 OPS and .554 wOBA in the count they’re currently situated in, because he’s confident enough in his slider that he doesn’t need to serve Machado a fastball on a platter.
Despite missing his spot — Wynns sets up towards the inner third of the plate, though it wasn’t the firmest target we’ve ever seen — that’s a fantastic pitch. We can’t say for sure what Machado was looking for, but he probably wasn’t going to swing unless he got it. He didn’t get it, and a hitter whose eyes light up at a 1-0 breaking ball starting two feet off the outside corner probably doesn’t stick in the major leagues for long.
Rodón’s slider has well-above average drop and sweep, so when he locates it on the outer third of the plate to a right-hander, it’s really hard for them to pull the trigger. Executing that pitch on a clear fastball count is essentially a free strike, but it’s hard enough to execute that most pitchers probably wouldn’t try it, much less to a hitter good enough to earn a 10-year contract. It’s called a fastball count for a reason, but Rodón isn’t most pitchers. Now that he’s got an even count, he can get back to the hard stuff.
Goodness. I mean, goodness. I said Machado didn’t have a chance in his first time up, but you could find this embedded in the Wikipedia page for “no chance.” And it’s really hard to edit Wikipedia these days! Not only is Rodón’s fastball as hard as anyone’s in the game, it also spins at a decently above-average rate, and more importantly, it spins at a more or less upright angle — it’s got almost perfect backspin, that it — and does so at 95 percent efficiency. The result is enough “rise” that the location he hits just above the zone becomes a sweet spot where a hitter is highly likely to go after it (72 percent swing rate) and not very likely to make contact with it (37 percent whiff rate) and even less likely to put it in play when they do make contact.
Rodón was wary enough the first time around to avoid overusing the fastball, but again, high-90s in that location is virtually unhittable. Having retired eight batters in a row to that point, Rodón was clearly in a groove and confident he could hit his spots. So why not throw the unhittable pitch again?
It’s a beautiful thing when the catcher’s glove barely moves on a pitch like that. Rodón is capable of throwing 98 from the jump, but this is the first time we’re seeing it in this game. When he’s in a rhythm and in control of his body, you can count on one hand the number of pitchers who are better at manipulating velocity and location. Rodón is a power pitcher, but he’s not just closing his eyes and letting it rip as hard as he can, location be damned. It’s a special combination of talents.
It’s only taken seven pitches, but Machado is thoroughly bamboozled to the degree that he just can’t bring himself to pull the trigger even when his next time up commences with a fastball right down the middle.
The annoying home plate view here serves to remind us that this is a day game in San Diego, and with shadows creeping over the field, visibility is not at its best, which was probably a factor here. Still, Machado swings at the first pitch almost 10 percent more than league average, but just can’t bring himself to attack here. One of the advantages of having such a deadly one-two punch is that when they’re both working at the same time, it’s going to predispose hitters towards guessing, getting stuck in between, and other conditions that often result in indecisive half-swings on eminently hittable pitches.
The fastball-slider is the one-two punch I was referencing, but Machado being the dangerous hitter he is, Rodón felt it was a good time to remind him that, oh yeah, there’s a curveball in his arsenal too.
It’s not a great curveball — it was developed in 2021 with White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz simply as a way of stealing called strikes early in the count — but when 90 percent of a pitcher’s pitches clock in between 89-99 mph, a low-80s rolling breaking ball in the right spot is guaranteed to throw a wrench in a hitter’s timing. Notice how high in the zone Wynns sets up before dropping to the dirt. This is a pitch that’s designed to hop out of the hand like a high fastball before dropping below the zone, and to get that effect, Rodón needs to throw at a target far higher than the spot he actually wants to hit. This is pitcher-catcher synchronicity at its best.
I’m way over my word count here, so I’ll wrap up with a simple phrase: Good Morning! Good Afternoon! Goodnight!
I, like you, am salivating at the number of batters to whom Rodón will be saying “goodnight” to at Yankee Stadium this year.