Yankees’ Carlos Rodon is a Jacob deGrom for now, but working to become a Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer
TAMPA -- As Carlos Rodon threw a live batting practice session at a sweltering Steinbrenner Field Friday afternoon, Gerrit Cole stood behind him, watching with the coaching staff. It was a visual symbol of how the two will be linked as Yankee co-aces in the years to come.
But while the Yanks and their fans hope that Rodon, who in December signed a six-year, $160 million contract, will produce results similar to Cole’s, they are in for a much different type of show, at least in the immediate future.
For now, Rodon is an entirely different pitcher than Cole, far more in line with the Jacob deGrom of recent seasons.
Traditionally, aces pitch like Cole and Max Scherzer, combining arm and intellect to mix four or five pitches and keeping hitters guessing. To listen to either Cole or Scherzer discuss pitch selection is to enroll in a seminar on when and why a curveball, cutter, change-up or four-seam fastball is advisable.
Rodon, like the deGrom 2.0 who excelled for the Mets when able to take the ball, does not pitch like that. He overpowers hitters with two pitches, the fastball and slider. Rodon is not confusing hitters; he is blowing them away (though no one does that with the same triple-digit velocity deGrom can flash). In essence, it’s as if Edwin Diaz pitched five or six innings instead of one.
“DeGrom and Rodon stand out in that way,” says Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake. “There are a handful of guys who have an elite one or two pitches and can ride that.”
But while neither Blake nor Rodon himself wants to rush any dramatic changes, they both say that they are more than open to gradually expanding his repertoire.
“The long-term vision for Carlos is, how do we continue to adjust as things come up?” Blake says.
Friday’s live BP made clear why the two-pitch approach has made Rodon one of the top starters in the league over the past two seasons. His fastball popped in Kyle Higashioka’s glove and echoed around the mostly empty ballpark. His slider came in hard, then dove out of the strike zone. It was more than enough to win ballgames.
Rodon didn’t always pitch this way. Early in his career, he behaved like most other starters, mixing his four-seamer, sinker, slider and change-up. The results, like his durability, were mixed.
Then, in 2021, Rodon began to simplify, and his career took off. The Chicago White Sox encouraged him to throw mostly fastballs and sliders, but still mix in about 12 percent change-ups. He went 13-5, with a 2.37 ERA -- a long-awaited breakthrough for talent promised but never refined.
In 2022, Rodon’s new team, the San Francisco Giants, took the progression a step further.
“Last year with the Giants we did a deep dive into my pitches,” Rodon says. “When I first sat down with them it was like, ‘the change-up usage has to go down.’ They had big wOBA numbers, big slug numbers on them, so it made sense. The OPS was high on the change-up, so we relied heavily on fastball/slider. They said the curveball was more of an early drop-in pitch, and that kind of developed into another weapon that I could strike guys out with.”
Last season Rodon threw 92 percent fastballs and sliders, very much in the deGrom mode. He mixed in the change-up two percent of the time and the curveball six percent of the time. This was good enough to match or exceed his 2021 results and launch him into a highly lucrative free agency.
Blake says that he won’t try to force anything new on Rodon in the short-term.
“As a starting point, let’s make sure he shows up and can be the guy who has spent the past two years with that mix,” Blake says. “And then if there are opportunities to bring in the curveball and change-up more, great. But I don’t want him to think, ‘Oh, we have to do these other things in order to solve problems we don’t even have yet.’ He’s been really good for the last few years. Let’s not try to stray too far away from that.”
Blake sees Rodon’s curveball as an average pitch -- he grades it as a 45 or 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale -- but one that can be improved.
“Do we need to change the shape?” Blake says. “Is the shape right? Is it consistent enough? And where is it relative to the other offspeed [pitches]? The White Sox liked the change-up; the Giants liked the curveball. I think he more naturally has a feel for the curveball.”
Rodon agrees, and is excited about continuing to develop the pitch.
“I started using the curveball at the end of last year and started getting real comfortable with it,” Rodon says. “That’s a new pitch for me, kind of one of those drop-in pitches. But at the end of last year, it kind of became like a second out pitch, which was nice … I think it will get a lot better, and it will definitely be in the mix.”
Rodon added that he would see if he could refine the change-up, too. He doesn’t sound like a pitcher content to merely overpower opponents as he has for the past two years.
To put it another way: he might be a simplified, high-velo deGrom for now, but as his Yankee career progresses, he is open to becoming a cerebral Cole or Scherzer, too.