By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Carlos Rodon looked cooked.
The 2014 No. 3 overall pick strolled off the mound at the Oakland Coliseum in Game 3 of the 2020 wild-card series having not recorded an out. Considering that he missed much of the COVID-shortened season while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Rodón’s fastball velocity that afternoon was actually solid, comfortably within the 94-96 mph range.
It’s just that everything else was out of whack.
“I could tell my confidence—just wasn’t there.” Rodon told FOX Sports of that outing. “I didn’t have the confidence on any of my pitches, on anything I threw.”
After being called upon by the White Sox in a 3-2 game with the bases empty, Rodón walked Tommy LaStella on a full count before allowing a double down the left-field line to Marcus Semien. Chicago skipper Rick Renteria intentionally walked the next batter, Chad Pindersand then pulled Rodon from the game.
The Sox went on to lose the game 6-4, ending their season.
Two months later, Chicago didn’t tender Rodón to contract. The former can’t-miss prospect, who performed in the bigs in 2015 before the injuries came, was officially a free agent, a bust, a reclamation project. A man forced to reevaluate himself as a baseball player and reckon, for the first time in his athletic life, with failure.
And now, just 18 months later, Carlos Rodón might be the most dominant pitcher in the world.
Since the start of 2021, no starter with at least 130 innings has a lower ERA than Rodón’s. Want to get a bit more sabermetric? Nobody has a higher ERA+. Rodón trails only one pitcher — last year’s NL Cy Young, Corbin Burnes — in terms of strikeouts per nine innings (and only by decimal points, too).
How did Rodón go from afterthought to ace? For him, it was all about channeling frustration into action.
“I was pissed off,” Rodon said. “That offseason, I worked so hard because I was motivated, really motivated. Because I’d never been turned away. That was the first time I hadn’t, like, been picked for a team. Ever. In my whole life. “
Born in Miami and raised in North Carolina, Rodón had always been untouchable on a mound. At North Carolina State, he blossomed into one of the greatest college pitchers of the 21st century, striking out 436 hitters in 345 2/3 innings while posting a 2.24 ERA combined in his three years in Raleigh. As a sophomore in 2012, I led the Wolfpack to the program’s first College World Series appearance in more than 50 years. That earned him the No. 3 overall pick in 2014 and a hefty $6.6 million signing bonus.
He then shot up through the Chicago system, debuting less than a year later on April 21, 2015. And for the next four seasons he was… fine. Oft-injured and underwhelming.
From time to time, Rodón would show flashes of his immense talent, but for the most part, the numbers never matched the hype. That was mostly due to a string of arm injuries that eventually led to Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2019. Rodón returned in 2020, throwing just 7 2/3 innings in the regular season before his fateful wild-card outing and subsequent non- tend.
“I remember thinking ‘this is my last chance’ after I got non-tendered,” he admitted. “I said, ‘Someone’s gonna pick me up, and this is gonna be my last chance to prove that I can still play this game. So something’s gotta change.'”
The day after White Sox GM Rick Hahn called to inform Rodón of the non-tender, Carlos and his wife, Ashley, were scheduled to go on a brief vacation to the Caribbean. A romantic getaway, just the pair of them.
They never left.
Instead, Carlos set up a net in the hallway of their Indiana farm home and just started throwing. The call from Hahn had shifted his mindset immediately.
“It lit a fire under him,” Ashley told FOX Sports. “Hearing someone say: ‘Hey, we’re not gonna pay you because we don’t think you’re worth that.’ I remember him being in the hallway of our house after that call. He looked at me and said: ‘We’re not going on vacation tomorrow.’ And next thing I know, he was throwing into that net as hard as he could.”
That offseason, Carlos worked harder than he ever had before. He recommitted himself to the sport, throwing almost exclusively alone and inside through the Indiana winter. At NC State, he could coast on ability, and in the big leagues, he could chalk it all up to injuries. But after the Sox let him loose, he knew the clock was ticking.
“Everything was just so focused,” I remembered. “Baseball became my craft. Every day had a purpose. I was so focused on everything I did within the game, whether it was lifting or throwing. As cliché as it sounds, it honestly made me work harder. Like, ‘S– -, I gotta prove something now.’ I kind of needed that slap to the face.”
“Before that, I wouldn’t say he was coasting,” Ashley said. “But he definitely thought, ‘I’m always gonna be here because I’ve always been good.’ That non-tender was absolutely a wake-up call.”
Eventually, Rodón returned to the White Sox that winter on a one-year deal for just $3 million, a seemingly minor part of Chicago’s roster. But new pitching coach Ethan Katz had a vision to help rejuvenate Rodón and make him a crucial cog in the club’s rotation.
The two began FaceTimeing before the season and developed a rapport before spring even started. By the time Rodón got to Arizona, he was all-in. And he felt a change right away.
“The moment I knew I was back? Yeah, there was one pitch in spring training,” he said. “A fastball I threw by Manny Machado. I blew that fastball by him and was like, ‘OK, I got my pitch again.'”
From then on, Rodón was nails. He tossed a no-hitter in April, was named to the All-Star team in July and posted a first-half ERA of 2.31 in 89 innings, with a whopping 130 strikeouts.
But then the workload started to impact him. Rodón threw just 28 innings the last two months of the season, with his velocity from him a far cry from the upper-90s gas he was pumping earlier in the year.
“It all kinda caught up to me,” I admitted. “I look back at last year, I had 90 innings or whatever by the All-Star break. The year before that, I had 11, and the year before that, I had just 40 or something. It was all just workload. As far as how I felt: It was like, ‘You’re gonna throw, it’s gonna hurt a little bit, but just keep going.’ That’s where I was. And you feel it all around: legs, shoulder, wherever. My legs were heavy. My body didn’t have that light feeling. It wasn’t loose.”
Despite the discomfort, Rodón came back for Game 4 of the 2021 ALDS against houston like a bat out of hell. In the first inning, he struck out alex bregman and Yordan Alvarez with 98 mph heat. But it was clear by the third inning that he was not his peak self, as the velocity fell back down into the mid-90s. After an RBI single by Carlos CorreaTony La Russa pulled the plug and took the ball.
After the season, Rodón did not receive a qualifying offer from the White Sox.
But now, after signing a two-year, $44 million deal with the giants in the offseason, Rodón has no concerns about his health moving forward. He feels rested, loose and committed to his process. Despite the concerns from some clubs about his durability, Rodón has supreme confidence in himself and his preparation. That’s a far cry from where he was just over a year ago.
“I doubt [after 2020]. Now, I know I’m fine,” he said. “I know how good I can be. This offseason, I built off 2021, so I really knew what I was doing. I understood how my body works.”
So far this year, that looks to be the case. In his first two starts, Rodón allowed just two runs in 15 innings while striking out 21. It’s early, but he looks a lot like the guy who threw a no-hitter last April.
“I knew who I was,” he said. “I know who I am. That makes everything a lot easier.”
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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