Yankees starter Carlos Rodón is throwing a cutter now — will it help him bounce back from 2023?

The new pitch is part of Rodón's offseason work to rediscover the deception that made him one of MLB's top arms

Carlos Rodón’s 2023 season was … less than ideal.

After inking a massive six-year, $162 million free-agent deal with the Yankees in December 2022, the two-time All-Star missed the first three months of the season due to a back injury. After he returned in July to much expectation, Rodón never quite found his footing. The lefty hurler looked uncomfortable throughout his first season in pinstripes, finishing the campaign with a brutal 6.85 ERA across 14 starts.

With all the chaos in YankeeLand last year, Rodón’s underperformance was somewhat overshadowed. But with so much of the organization’s pitching depth dealt to San Diego this winter in exchange for Juan Soto, the Yanks are counting on a bounceback year from their sturdy southpaw. That puts every pitch Rodón throws this spring under a microscope.

In his first spring training start of the year, the 31-year-old gave us something to look at. Across Rodón’s nine-year MLB career, he has thrown 15,540 total pitches — but never a cutter. That is, until now. (Note: Statcast had Rodón throwing a cutter last year, but if you watch the video … well …)

But against the Blue Jays on Sunday, Rodón threw five cutters, all to right-handed hitters. The results — two balls, two foul balls and an Alejandro Kirk home run — are unimportant; this is spring training, after all. Worth noting is that during the game, The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner reported that Rodón has been chatting with Yankees ace Gerrit Cole about how the addition of a cutter helped Cole down the stretch last season.

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In general, February and March exhibition games offer very few data points of relevance. Players are more focused on getting prepared for the regular season, and the small-sample haze obfuscates the truth. But the two key dynamics in spring training are changes to pitch data and player health. Those are the most meaningful happenings that could have an impact on, you know, the real season.

Rodón’s new cutter falls into that first category. But to understand how effective this new pitch might be, we must first investigate why Rodón disappointed a year ago. That will help us understand whether a cutter is the key that fits this particular lock.

The weirdest part of Rodón’s 2023 was that his raw stuff didn’t slide. In 2022, he performed like one of the best pitchers in the world for the San Francisco Giants. A sixth-place NL Cy Young finish and a delightfully small 2.88 ERA in 178.0 innings earned him that hefty contract from the Yankees. He also racked up a mountain of strikeouts, thanks to a dastardly fastball/slider combination.

After he returned from the IL in July 2023, Rodón’s stuff looked … the same. His average fastball velocity in '23 was down only 0.2 mph, while the spin and shape metrics were comparable enough to the year before. Yet despite the similarities under the hood, Rodón’s four-seamer performed significantly worse, going from one of the top 10 four-seamers in baseball to a squarely below-average offering.

Not all of it had to do with command and control. Yes, he tallied walks at a higher rate in '23, but Rodón threw approximately the same amount of pitches in the strike zone and attacked hitters with a very similar strategy: heaters up and armside, sliders down and gloveside.

That means the hike in free passes had more to do with hitters laying off pitches than any control issues on his part. It’s clear that hitters saw Rodón much better in '23 than in '22, even though his pitch metrics were the same. But how?

A recent in-game broadcast interview with Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake might have some of the answer. Blake was asked by YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits to highlight some of the ways Rodón’s mechanics look different than they did a year ago.

“Maybe just a little bit direction at times, maybe just a little open last year, maybe showing the ball a touch early,” he said. “I think with the life on the fastball, it looks like he's keeping his direction a little bit cleaner behind the ball, and it seems like there's another gear to it.”

Let’s translate this from baseball-speak to English. Blake is talking about Rodón’s stride direction, implying that last year, Rodón was landing too far toward third base. That meant his body was opening up too early, which afforded hitters a better look at the baseball.

The key phrase here is “showing the ball a touch early.” Modern technology can track and quantify almost everything about pitching, but deception, for the most part, remains a wild bird. And what a baseball is doing is always less important than what a hitter perceives a baseball to be doing. A 95 mph fastball that’s recognizable out of the pitcher’s hand is a different beast than one that pops out of nowhere.

From all this, we can deduce that Blake and the Yankees viewed a lack of deception, brought on by a decline in Rodón’s mechanics, as at least part of the reason for his lackluster 2023. It makes sense, then, that he arrived at the team’s facility months before the official report date to improve his lower-half flexibility and get his body moving like it was in his Giants days. That would go a long way in increasing deception and accumulating outs.

But what about the cutter? How does the new pitch play into this?

Well, it can’t hurt.

According to Marquee Network’s Lance Brozdowski, the metrics on Rodón’s sparkly new cutter project the pitch to be squarely above average. As a left-hander who rarely deploys a change-up, Rodón will likely use the pitch primarily against opposite-handed hitters. The cutter’s movement and velocity fit in the window between Rodón’s fastball and slider, which would give righty bats another pitch to think about.

Both Rodón and Blake must be well aware that a new pitch won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. To recapture his peak form, Rodón needs to rediscover the deception that allowed his already nasty arsenal to play up. Spring training won’t uncover much in that realm — deception is all about what hitters are doing, and what hitters are doing in spring is mostly irrelevant — but it’s certainly worth watching Rodón’s next outing to see if there are signs of progress.