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Carlos Rodón Is a Cy Young Contender, Whether He Believes It or Not

Over the past seven years, Rodón has gone from a top-five pick to a non-tendered player to an ace for a contending team. Now he’s just focused on pitching the right way—and continuing his recent run of success.

Baseball superstition holds that you’re supposed to ignore a no-hitter in progress. Don’t speak to the pitcher, don’t talk about what’s happening, and don’t even think about saying the phrase. Which leaves the guy who’s throwing it in an awkward situation.

“There’s no way, really, not to think about it,” says White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodón. “When you get that third out in the seventh, it starts getting real.”

At that point in his April 14 start against Cleveland, Rodón had retired all 21 hitters he’d faced. With his socks pulled up to his kneecaps and jersey unbuttoned to his sternum, the 28-year-old lefty was peppering the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, teasing right-handed hitters with a fading changeup, and throwing his gravity-bending slider wherever, whenever, and to whomever he damn well pleased.

If the word “no-hitter” is verboten mid-game, then “perfect game” is positively blasphemous. But between the seventh and eighth innings that day, first-year Chicago pitching coach Ethan Katz risked the jinx and offered his pupil a piece of advice.

“He said, ‘Let the crowd take you. Let that energy keep you going,’” says Rodón. “I just settled in and said, ‘Here we go, whatever happens happens.’”

Rodón lost the perfect game with one out in the ninth when a wayward two-strike slider hit Roberto Pérez in the foot. But behind a great final two innings, in which he threw his three hardest fastballs and six fastest-spinning sliders of the night, he finished the no-hitter. “One thing with Carlos that’s a little bit unique is he gets stronger as the game goes on,” says Katz.

In all, Rodón threw nine innings, 114 pitches (75 of them strikes), seven strikeouts, and no walks that night. All that culminated in one giant sigh of relief. “I never thought I would do this,” Rodón says. “Hell, no one ever thought I would be able to accomplish something like this.”

Rodón might be selling himself short. Yes, he’s had significant struggles over the past few years: spotty command made him unreliable on the mound, and a series of injuries—including a torn UCL in 2019—threatened to derail his career. The White Sox even non-tendered him in December and didn’t re-sign him until just before the start of spring training. But Rodón has been an integral part of the club’s rebuilding plans since 2014, when Chicago drafted him third after a legendary college career. And this season, he’s cashing in on his promise.

Six weeks after his stunning no-hitter, Rodón has only built on the best game of his career. The big left-hander is 5-1 in seven starts and averaging a career-high 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings against a career-low 2.5 walks and 4.6 hits. His 1.27 ERA would be the lowest in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify—a threshold he should reach with ease in his start against the Cardinals on Wednesday. A Cy Young–quality campaign for Rodón would’ve been unthinkable six months ago. But that’s the kind of season he’s having.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
Rodón pitches during his no-hitter against the Indians in April
Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Every summer, college baseball players pack up their gear and head off to one of the various summer leagues that are spread throughout the country. The best players head for Massachusetts and the famed Cape Cod League, but an even more select group are chosen for the Collegiate National Team and an international barnstorming tour, during which they go up against all-star teams and other national squads. Making that cut once is harder to achieve than All-American status, and a validation of a player’s MLB potential. And only a handful each draft class make Team USA two seasons in a row. Rodón was one of them.

On July 23, 2013, Rodón, a rising junior at NC State, made his last, and best, start in a Team USA uniform. Facing a Cuban national team whose lineup included future big leaguers Yasmany Tomás and José Miguel Fernández, Rodón struck out 11 in 6 2/3 scoreless innings en route to a 5-3 win. Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent, who was in attendance along with dozens of scouts, reportedly said Rodón had never pitched a better game.

That performance capped off a five-game sweep of Team Cuba and put a bow on a stellar sophomore year for Rodón: A Division I–high 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings, a trip to the College World Series, and 21 strikeouts in 17 scoreless innings for Team USA. At that point, the discussion was less about whether Rodón was the best college prospect in the 2014 draft class and more about whether he or David Price was the best college lefty of the previous decade.

Concerns over his workload and health as a junior would eventually drop the Wolfpack ace to no. 3 in the 2014 draft, behind two high school flamethrowers (Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek) who have thus far combined to throw zero innings above Low-A. But Rodón—whose slider sometimes literally made opponents fall over—still went ahead of a multitude of future MLB stars: Michael Conforto, Aaron Nola, Kyle Freeland, Matt Chapman, and Rodón’s college teammate, Trea Turner. And he carried with him the expectations commensurate with his college career and draft position.

“I was in the big leagues at 22,” says Rodón, who reached the majors less than 11 months after being drafted. “That’s the highest level of baseball you can play. I think everyone in the world knows that there’s very few people that have been superstars as soon as they set foot in a big league batter’s box or on a big league mound.”

And Rodón was immediately successful; over his first four seasons in Chicago, he averaged 21 starts a year with an ERA+ of 102. That’s a pretty solid start for a young pitcher, even a top-three pick. But Rodón had been so spectacular in college that he had to live up to a higher standard. Nobody wanted him to become a decent mid-rotation starter with an ERA in the low 4.00s. They expected him to be an ace.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
Rodón celebrates after recording the third out in the eighth inning of his no-hitter
Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

“I wanted to live up to everyone’s expectations. I had my own,” Rodón says. “I wanted to be a superstar as soon as I stepped on the mound.”

But he struggled with inconsistency. In July and August 2018, he pitched into the eighth inning five times in nine starts and posted an ERA of 1.84 with an opponent slash line of .151/.259/.250. That September, though, Rodón posted an ERA of 9.22 with 19 walks and five hit batters in six starts, half of which lasted less than five innings.

Then the injuries started to pile up. Biceps tendinitis, shoulder bursitis, a sprained wrist, and neck stiffness had combined to bite off about a third of Rodón’s playing time over his first four MLB seasons. Then the torn elbow ligament in early 2019 cost him that season and most of 2020 as well. But Rodón’s injuries took a greater toll than just playing time.

“If you go back and look at old videos of me and dive into those mechanics, I was kind of a crossfire guy. When I landed, my stride to home was real short and closed off toward the plate,” Rodón says. “I think a lot of it had to do with injuries, how to throw a baseball without feeling something hurting. A lot of bad habits are created in that process. And I was getting some results. Not great, but good enough.”

This is a story just about as old as pitching itself: A pitcher suffers a nagging injury and alters his mechanics to throw without pain, but in the process he compromises his delivery and risks further and more serious injury. To cite one famous example: In 1937, Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean took a line drive off his foot in the All-Star Game and broke his toe. He changed his delivery to protect the painful injured foot, which threw off his mechanics, and he later blew out his arm. In three months he went from one of the best pitchers in baseball to being jettisoned by the Cardinals, and within three years, his career had basically ended.

The crossfire delivery and short stride Rodón describes are both unmitigated disasters from a mechanical perspective. Such a delivery doesn’t fully engage the pitcher’s legs, which saps power. The extra side-to-side motion compounds this problem, as less force is directed through the ball to home plate. And the added complexity to the arm motion makes the windup less repeatable. That not only makes a pitcher lose command, it puts extra stress on their body and increases the chance of further injury.

Before this season, Rodón’s big league pitching coach was Don Cooper, who’d been with Chicago for 33 years, including 19 at the big league level. But after parting ways with Cooper this offseason, the White Sox hired Katz, a former assistant pitching coordinator with the Giants and minor league coach in the Mariners and Angels systems who was most famous for his work at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles. There, he coached three future first-round picks: Max Fried, Jack Flaherty, and White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, who endorsed Katz when he came up for the Chicago job.

Katz was able to identify Rodón’s issues on video almost immediately, and he quickly set to work rebuilding his stricken would-be ace.

“When I knew I was going to sign back with the Sox, Ethan and I jumped on the phone,” Rodón says. “We talked about certain adjustments I needed to make, and he said the first part would be the lower half. That was the main focus.”

“The first time we talked on the phone, he was pretty much all ears,” Katz said. “So I just threw him all the information that I thought could help him, and obviously he put in the work.”

The key, Katz says, was changing how Rodón pushed off the rubber. Before, he’d been driving with just his toe, which was sending him toward first base and setting into motion all the mechanical messiness that had plagued him over the previous few years. Katz’s goal was to get Rodón to drive more off his back leg and use his entire foot to explode off the rubber. “When you keep a better direct path toward home plate, that also keeps him healthier instead of battling across himself all the time,” Katz says.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
Rodón salutes the fans after his no-hitter
Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Rodón had already started trying to clean up his mechanics before he met Katz. He’s been working for years at Pro X, the same Indiana training facility at which his Chicago teammate Lance Lynn rediscovered his form. (The secret to the first-place White Sox’s rotation: Don’t skip leg day.) And seven seasons into a major league career that’s been frustrating at best, Rodón feels as comfortable and confident physically as ever.

“Some people say it takes another whole year to feel normal after Tommy John,” Rodón says. “So coming back in 14 months and trying to pitch in the postseason [in 2020] was a tall order. … Fast-forward five, six months later, and you can see a difference. Obviously there were other things that went into making me better, but the time helps a lot.”

Both Katz and Rodón say this season, they’re focused on consolidating the gains of the past few months and trying to refine Rodón’s sequencing, rather than adding any new weapons to his arsenal. It’s worth remembering—since this might be the first time we’ve seen peak Rodón in a major league uniform—that the pitcher’s repertoire always has been elite.

“It’s really rare,” Katz says of Rodón’s headlining fastball-slider combination. “There’s not too many guys in the big leagues that have his stuff. His changeup is a really big weapon as well. He really has three plus pitches, and he’s able to utilize his curveball and land it whenever he wants to. I mean, you’ve got a nice four-pitch mix, and obviously there aren’t too many left-handed starting pitchers who can run it up to 99. It’s a unique arm.”

As great as Rodón’s performed this year, he’s still started only seven games, and such gains can be illusory. He acknowledges that focusing on awards—like the ERA title and Cy Young, both of which he’s in contention for—or a playoff run, or the nine-figure contract he could be in line for when he hits free agency this winter, is unproductive, even dangerous.

Taking it one day at a time is as well worn a baseball cliché as not talking about a no-hitter, but Rodón says that to him, it’s hard-won knowledge. “I’ve gone through that,” he says, “and you will lose sight of what’s in front of you. And that’s not a good place to be.”

As much as he wishes he’d internalized those lessons when he was a rookie, Rodón thinks it took experiencing failure to reach his full potential. “At 22 years of age, I don’t know, mentally, if I would have been able to receive all that information,” he says. “And maybe they were trying to feed me that information and I just couldn’t digest it. All I know is that now, I know who I am as a pitcher.”

And that’s one of the best in the American League.

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