Observations about how Carlos Rodón pitches

April 16, 2022

If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch Carlos Rodón pitch, the main thing is he’s a hulking dude, and the ball explodes out of his hand, whether it’s coming at 99 miles per hour at the top of the zone or spinning in at 78 miles per hour and falling off the table into the dirt. He’s been that guy for a long time, going back to his time at NC State University, but he hadn’t been able to harness that talent and get consistently great results in MLB until last season, when he struck out 185 batters in 132.2 innings and had a 2.37 ERA. Even then, you’ll notice his limited innings due to injury.

This year, in two starts for San Francisco, he’s picked up right where he left off, hurling untouchable pitches with shocking precision. I was fortunate enough to attend his Giants debut against the Marlins, I watched his next start against the Guardians on TV, and I’m utterly stoked he’s on my team.

Beyond that, I’m fascinated with the evolution of Rodón’s pitching mechanics over the years. I’ll leave it to people with more expertise than me to make narrower conclusions, but from my observations I have one super-broad macro conclusion.

First, look at him pitching in college. The first thing I notice is, in the windup, he starts out facing the batter pretty much straight on. I remember being instructed to do this back when I pitched in high school a couple decades ago because the goal was to generate forward momentum toward home plate. Starting with shoulders squared this way meant I would be in better position to rock straight back to load my potential energy, then lift up onto the back leg and fire forward. It looks like Rodón sought to follow that classic formula. However, my instruction back then also included the notion that on follow through, the pitcher ought to flow forward and “pick up the coin” with his hand going toward the ground, the idea being that by leaning my whole body forward like that, the energy of stopping my arm from flying out of its shoulder socket would be absorbed by my trunk as much as the shoulder. Rodón didn’t do that. He stayed tall in his follow through, and his throwing arm whipped across his body and, pretty much every time, stopped by slamming into his waist and rebounding back.

To be clear: Knowing what I know now and the advances in understanding the entire baseball world has made in the past couple decades, I wouldn’t teach a kid to pitch the way I was taught, never mind that I was never even close to the sheer athlete Rodón was and is, so my experience is hardly comparable. Ultimately, those mechanics worked for him — he was picked third overall in the MLB Rule 4 draft! — so you can’t really say he should have changed them at that point. However, he threw in a way that sure feels inefficiently effortful. Compare to durable power pitchers of varying quality over history: Roger Clemens might be the standard for a guy who put tremendous effort into his pitches, but also had a sort of smooth grace. Watch how Max Scherzer’s whole body pirouettes from the effort of throwing, and how it’s not just his shoulder flinging the ball. But those guys are inner-circle Hall of Fame talents. Go a few steps down, and you have C.C. Sabathia, Kevin Brown, Felix Hernandez, Javier Vazquez, Matt Cain, and Jason Schmidt, among others, who all threw in very different ways, with differing forms of violence, but all with a motion that did not appear abbreviated, the way Rodón’s did.

He made his MLB debut for the Chicago White Sox in 2015, and looking at how he pitched then, I see adjustments from his college motion. He still rocked more or less straight backward and came in with a three-quarters delivery, but with the White Sox, his windup, especially the leg kick, appeared less jumpy, more controlled. As in college, he remained mostly upright in his follow through, though he had a noticeable lean forward after release.

The next few years, he struggled to find effectiveness and maintain his health. I don’t know, precisely, what was going on with him, but pulling out one game from 2018, I can see even more differences in how he pitched. It was actually a really good game from that period, but you can see his fastball topping out at 95 miles per hour, rather than the 97-99 miles per hour he’s reaching today, and the reason might be related to why his follow through was different. Notice how he remained fairly upright after releasing the ball, more than he had been his rookie year or in college, I believe.

Last season, in April, Rodón threw a no-hitter that was a nicked shoelace away from a perfecto. One thing that was markedly different about his mechanics by then was his windup. Note that he was no longer squaring up to face the batter, but instead angling his lead shoulder toward the plate and stepping his front leg to the side in order to get it in position to kick. His follow through was still fairly upright, but, compared to the 2018 footage, he wasn’t stopping his body’s momentum from carrying forward. Instead, after release he let his back leg come around and even cross over in front of his landing foot, something I didn’t see him doing earlier. His body wasn’t working to stop itself from moving nearly as much, and it appeared he was working to get more full-body rotational force into his pitches. One more big change I noticed: When he took the ball out of his glove in 2021, it was down near his abdomen. Previously, it might have been up at his chest, forcing him to bring his arm on a farther track back down and then up to throw.

This year, he’s made more changes. The first, and most obvious, one is that he now starts his windup with his lead shoulder pointed at the plate, essentially in the stretch position. Lots of pitchers have adopted this strategy in recent years, whether they step back in their windup, like David Price, or simply eschew the windup completely and pitch from the stretch at all times (Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Kevin Gausman, Steven Strasburg). Rodón steps to start his kick, and he’s used it as a way to pause in the middle of his motion, perhaps playing with the batter’s timing (a la Marcus Stroman). However, I strongly suspect the main reason he’s done all this is in the name of simplifying his motion and making it more easily repeatable.

The results so far have been spectacular. His 21 strikeouts and only five hits allowed in 12.0 innings suggests his stuff is as nasty as ever. Yes, as a Giants fan, I’m hopeful he’s figured out how to maintain that nastiness over the course of a full season and 30 starts, but I’ll also go out on a limb and say I’m encouraged by how he physically looks throwing the ball. I’m no biomechanical or pitching expert, but I know a little bit, and he certainly looks like a guy in peak physical condition who’s no longer fighting his own body to throw the ball hard and where he wants it to go. All his effort is going into doing athletic things, rather than an approximation of something athletic. What a joy to watch.

(Photo: "Carlos Rodon follows through to home plate." by Richard Bartlaga. Used under CC BY-ND 2.0 license.)