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Carlos Rodón’s problems are subtle — but fixable

Despite a terrible debut year in pinstripes, a bounce-back is easily imaginable for the lefty.

MLB: New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler alert, but this article ends with a bit of optimism about Carlos Rodón. It’s been a bad season, but I’m as confident in a better 2024 for his as I am anyone this side of Gerrit Cole on this volatile question mark of a team. It’s a bit tough to put our finger on what exactly his problem has been this summer, but trying to get there uncovers some things that make me think it’s not as steep of a climb back as the bottom-line results might say.

Part of the disappointment is wrapped in the fact that his seeming deterioration has been a bit of a mystery. His velocity is more or less where it’s sat the last two years, his fastball and slider’s movement profile are likewise consistent. His release points are the same, as are virtually every other pitch property. But in terms of batted ball results, it’s easy to see why he’s giving up more runs. He’s seen his fly ball rate nearly double over its 2021-22 standard, and hitters are also pulling the ball more than ever, which is not a combination that a pitcher is interested in seeing. Hitters are still whiffing at his slider in roughly equal measure, but when they make contact with it, it’s not such an elite pitch anymore — by expected wOBA, it’s pretty much league-average, which is certainly not what you hope out of a nine-figure man. The same goes for his fastball.

Again, what makes it so frustrating is that on the surface, there’s little reason this should be happening, given that his arsenal is virtually unchanged. At the same time, it’s also a reason for reassurance. A pitcher’s peak can be fleeting, and when they lose a couple ticks off their velocity, or can’t quite spin their offspeed stuff the same way, it might never come back.

That’s clearly not the case here. Maybe it’s a cop out, maybe it’s a bogus silver lining, but it’s easy to remember plenty of pitchers (and position players) who looked utterly cooked more or less the moment they put pen to paper. It didn’t take very long, for example, for folks to realize that the versions of Pablo Sandoval and Jacoby Ellsbury that the Red Sox and Yankees had paid for weren’t the versions they were getting. Rodón may be dealing with some issues, but all the evidence we have says that even amid all the health dings that have hijacked his season — and we’ll get to that in a minute — he’s more or less the same guy. That’s important to remember as the Carl Pavano references get thrown into the discourse this coming offseason, as they surely will.

MLB: New York Yankees at Los Angeles Angels
Carlos Rodón will be no Carl Pavano
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, given all of the health issues that kept him off the field from March until July this year, it’s actually pretty remarkable that his stuff has held up so evenly with what it looked like before. Even that being the case, that doesn’t mean the injuries aren’t affecting him. Noah Garcia’s look at Rodón fastball a few weeks ago came to the conclusion that many of its issues simply stem from not being spotted well, and just from the eye test, I don’t disagree. He’s not spotting up as well as he has in the recent past.

But that doesn’t explain the significant jump in his walk rate, leaping from a solidly better-than-average 7.1 percent walk rate between 2021 and 2022 to a solidly worse-than-average 9.8% this year. In terms of innings, that’s a climb from 2.5 walks per nine up to 3.9. What’s really weird about all those extra walks is that he’s not throwing the ball in the zone any less. He’s throwing it in the strike zone and drawing chases and whiffs the same as ever, and even though I do think he’s missing his spots more, the broad data says that he’s throwing it in more or less the same locations. Advanced models like Pitching+ and PitchBot don’t register a substantial change in pitch quality, though they do back up the idea that his location is worse. All of a sudden, hitters are teeing off on stuff that’s been unhittable for the better part of two years.

Instead of dissecting his seemingly unchanged arsenal to endless granularity, let’s zoom out and take it at face value that he actually is close to the same. When we do that, there’s a pretty obvious explanation staring us in the face: What if it’s just an approach issue? Go back to the increase in pulled fly balls I mentioned at the beginning. His pulled fly ball rate has been on a steady increase over the last two seasons, and now, his fastball is getting pulled in the air nearly twice as much as it was in 2021. His slider? Its rate has nearly quadrupled. A pulled ball in the air is pretty much the worst possible outcome for a pitcher, as far as batted balls go, because a lot of them tend to look like this:

Gee, you think Arozarena was looking for the high cheese there?

Maybe the fact that he hasn’t changed drastically is an issue in and of itself. It’s really hard to get the bat out in front of and under a rising mid- to high-nineties heater up in the zone unless you’re looking for it. Likewise for this slider, which is suddenly being barreled up by hitters like Tyler Nevin in a place where it’s gotten nothing but whiffs and dribblers for two years:

This year’s highlight (lowlight?) reel is riddled with pitches like that: Fastballs and sliders that are simply looking a bit more hittable, even though they’re the same. Maybe he’s tipping something, maybe better scouting reports are working their way around the league after two years of dominance. Again, this isn’t a pitch that anybody was touching in 2021, but I think José Abreu might have had an inkling that it was going to be there:

None of this is great, but it gives me reason to have faith in a bounce-back in 2024. Absent any serious new deficiencies in the quality of his pitches, even just having a normal offseason and spring training ought to go a long way towards fixing those sudden command issues. Clean and consistent mechanics are generally correlated with good command, and good health is generally correlated with clean and consistent mechanics. 2023 got off on the wrong foot for Rodón, and I suspect avoiding a repeat next year will make him look a lot sharper.

Arsenals can be tweaked and approaches can be adjusted. There are things Rodón can do to be less predictable, and it’s a rare few players who get to play at a high level for a long time without making any adjustments. There’s evidence he’s already begun to adjust to try to become less predictable, as he’s thrown curves and changeups a combined 20-percent of the time his last two starts, easily eclipsing his early usage on those pitches. I’m optimistic because none of the fixes for these issues require any kind of drastic change to who he is as a pitcher.

Rodón’s already reinvented himself once, and unlike Madison Bumgarner, he doesn’t seem the type to be so stubborn as to not invite change when something’s not working. A full bill of health entering next spring will do him wonders on its own, and I’m looking forward to seeing how his game evolves after whatever kind of setback you want to call this season.