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Yankees Sequence of the Week: Carlos Rodón can’t buy a whiff

A sliver of what’s plagued the Yankees’ marquee free agent acquisition.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This is one of those weeks where we’re going to cheat a little bit and look at more than one sequence. I want to take a look at Carlos Rodón’s fastball, because it’s at the crux of why he looks nothing like a pitcher who earned a $150 million contract over the last two seasons.

The slider has always been his calling card, but his mid- to high-90s fastball helps it play up, inducing a lot whiffs over the last two years with well-above average wOBA and xwOBA numbers. That’s all out the window this year, though, as those numbers have spiked way up to .370 and .406 respectively, numbers reminiscent of his mediocre early years with the White Sox, when his fastball sat 93 mph and was mixed in with a totally unremarkable sinker. I’m not sure what’s behind it — that’s a longer article — but I can show you what it looks like.

I guess it is a sequence, actually, because we’re going to look at all of the fastballs he threw in his final inning against Houston before departing with a hamstring injury. Here’s the first one, to José Altuve leading off the inning. It was the second pitch in the sequence, as Rodón had missed with a rare changeup to open the at-bat.

Altuve, you might remember, proceeded to reach base by bunting a slider down the third base line. Similarly, the next four-seamer he threw came on 1-0, this time after a missed first-pitch curve. He once again goes up in the zone, and while Bregman, unlike Altuve, is seemingly waiting to pounce on a heater, it’s in a spot where there’s nothing he can do with it.

After a good slider for a called strike, he’s got a 1-2 advantage and goes back to the heater. His four-seamer’s putaway rate — the percent of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout — lived at an elite 25 percent in 2021 and 2022. This year? Down to 10 percent. Here, we see it in action, though the result is good.

The result isn’t always the important part. Personally, I’m surprised Bregman was able to put that ball in play. That’s a pretty high pitch — 3.53 feet off the ground, his third-highest of the year. Bregman just tickles six feet even, so that’s high heat, and bat speed isn’t his strongest trait. Fueling his fastball’s overall demise has been a catastrophic drop in whiff per swing rate to a hair over 19 percent, three points below average, after sitting at an elite 29 percent in 2021-22, when he led MLB in swings-and-misses on four-seamers. Against a hitter with better bat speed, he might need to start pumping that pitch in harder than 94.7 mph. Anyhow, he’ll probably wishes he’d gotten a better result on the next fastball, this one in a two-strike count to Yordan Alvarez.

So close to a swing-and-miss! So close! Unfortunately, the command issues that have plagued him rear their head, and Rodón probably cost himself a strikeout by missing his spot and letting the hitter keep his hands in just enough to make the faintest of contact. He reached back for a game-high 98.8 mph here, and if he puts that pitch farther over the plate or on the outer half, Yordan almost certainly isn’t going to catch up to it. It looks something like this.

Unfortunately, Alvarez was able to time up the slider that followed well enough to find a barrel, and the next time Rodón threw a fastball, the score was 5-1 instead of 3-1. Kyle Tucker is typically an aggressive first-pitch swinger (47 percent), and he looks ready to pull the trigger on the first-pitch fastball he got after the home run, but it’s too far out for his liking. Rodón nails his spot that time, but pounding the zone has been an issue this year.

Rodón’s fastball locations have been scattershot, missing the zone more often and drawing fewer called strikes on top of the missing whiffs. It’s hitting the “shadow” zone — the area encompassing the edges of the plate — less than before, with all of the drop getting dumped into the “waste” zone, which are unambiguously balls. That’s not where you want your fastballs going!

This Tucker plate appearance, though, is what Rodón looks like when he’s good: relentlessly pounding the edges of the plate with the fastball because he knows that even a good hitter like Tucker can’t do much with it if he’s got the slider in the back of his mind.

Considering that Tucker proceeded to strike out passively on a breaking ball that nipped the outside corner, it’s safe to say that he was looking to jump on a fastball.

Tucker jumped, but Rodón hit his spots, and Tucker just couldn’t win. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hold it up for another batter. After falling behind 1-0 to Chas McCormick on a taken changeup, He tries to be aggressive with the fastball, but lands slightly open and misses his spot just a hair outside. A good frame gives him a called strike, but it’s not the same kind of aggressive spotting-up we saw against Tucker, and when he was dealing in 2021 and 2022. Also take note of the fact that this is the seventh fastball we’ve seen this inning, all in or around the zone, and not a single one has drawn a swing-and-miss.

Unfortunately, the next fastball wasn’t a swing-and-miss either, and it would be his last. Watching the tape, there’s not any indication that Rodón was injured before this pitch, and his velocity was his highest of the year. Something went wrong, and whatever he did to yank this fastball all the way inside also strained his hamstring, landing him back on the IL for an as-yet undetermined length of time.

Here’s to hoping it’s nothing significant, and that Rodón will be back with us for the stretch run. In terms of virtually all spin, release, and approach metrics, the fastball is virtually unchanged from 2021 and 2022. We’ve only been seeing it in flashes, but given the start-and-stop nature of his season dating back to March, it’s not surprising to me that consistency is an issue. I’m still optimistic about his contract paying off long-term — provided he can stay on the field enough to prove me right.