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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Matthew Roberson

How Carlos Rodon earned himself $162 million

With one single move last week, the Yankees thrust themselves from fringe World Series contender right into the mix.

Anyone trying to convince themselves that last year’s team could have won it all, as is, was sorely mistaken. Trying to outduel the Astros without any outside help would have been a foolish errand. While there are still some savvy moves to be made that could upgrade the Yankees’ offense, their pitching staff immediately became the best in the American League when they added Carlos Rodon for six years and $162 million. It was the exact type of signing to ward off complacency, officially kill any thoughts of running it back and try to make tangible strides beyond the ALCS.

But like any pitcher, especially one with an injury history as long as Rodon’s, the 30-year-old lefty is no sure thing. He essentially has two great years to his name, a solid rookie year in 2015, and five other seasons that were either cut short, severely interrupted or affected by injury in some way or another. The 2021 and 2022 seasons that both created his star power and got him paid were also the first time he’d ever kept his ERA under 3.75, something that talent evaluators likely thought could be a regular accomplishment for the former third overall pick in the draft. Rodon not only did that, he did so by over a full run, running a 2.67 ERA in 310.2 innings.

The main difference for Rodon during the past two seasons — apart from his arm finally holding up — has been in his pitch usage. Those who have followed Rodon since he was a phenom at North Carolina State know that he has a slider from hell. That’s been the out pitch on 43.6% of his strikeouts over the last two seasons, and is also one of a handful of pitches in Major League Baseball that legitimately appears unhittable when it’s doing what the pitcher wants it to.

But Rodon has always had that pitch, and has thrown it roughly 30% of the time during each of the last three seasons. Heading into the 2021 campaign that changed everything, Rodon not only healed from Tommy John surgery, he also greatly increased his fastball dosage and scaled back the changeup quite a bit. His renaissance began when he went from throwing a four-seamer 51.1% of the time in 2020 with an 18.8% changeup usage to 58.7% and 12.4%, respectively, in 2021. Last year the fastball was getting unleashed on 61.2% of his pitches while the changeup was relegated all the way down to 2%. Rodon threw just 59 total changeups in his one year with the Giants and 1,826 fastballs.

That recipe created the tastiest pitch stew of his life, and now that he plays for an organization that’s similarly enamored with fastballs and sliders, we can presume that the changeup is going to remain on the shelf. Importantly, the increase in fastballs also coincided with hitters failing to do much with it.

Rodon was one of 17 starting pitchers last year who threw 2,000 or more total pitches and used at least half of them on four-seamers. Of that group, Rodon is one of just eight whose fastball held hitters to a sub-.220 batting average. That puts him in the company of established greats like Justin Verlander, but also up-and-comers like Spencer Strider, Triston McKenzie and Cristian Javier. Rodon is both adapting to the modern game’s fixation with velocity and understanding that his heater can be just as effective as his more visually pleasing slider.

“I throw angry fastballs,” Rodon said last year while walking the All-Star Game red carpet. “I just throw them and see if they can hit them.”

The overwhelming response has been that they cannot. Rodon has also added some juice to the pitch post-Tommy John surgery, which has helped, and probably led to his increased trust in firing it up in the zone. Last year, 16.1% of Rodon’s offerings were fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone, per Baseball Savant. That is a staggering jump from the 9.7% he posted in 2018, the last season pre-surgery where Rodon made at least 20 starts. In 2018, the fastball averaged 92.9 mph. In 2022, it was 95.5. Adding some mustard to the ball, throwing it over and over again at the hitters’ chests, and doing so with a newfound anger have created one of the best pitchers in the game.

As long as the slider maintains all of its evil qualities and keeps working as a companion to this new and improved fastball, the Yankees have a gem on their hands. They also have four starters (Rodon, Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino) who struck out at least a fourth of their opponents last season, and another in Frankie Montas who did so every year from 2019 to 2021. Paired with the return of lights-out reliever Michael King — who the Yankees will probably try to spin as another offseason addition — from his fractured elbow, the club has pitching coming out of their ears.

Now the challenge is keeping those ears, shoulders and elbows from getting hurt.

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