Fastball not as fast, command way down, slider still awesome (but he uses it a ton, which may or may not be worrisome going forward), and, most frustratingly of all, no real positive gains made in areas that I was concerned about going into the year (he’s not a great athlete, his body is what it is, and his change is still not where you want it to be). When your strengths are not quite as strong and your weaknesses show little to no improvement, things aren’t going so great. Before you could say that his fastball/slider combo was so dominant that he’d be a damn good MLB starter regardless of those negatives — some are more dogmatic about the need for three average or better pitches to be a starter (I once was, to be honest), but reading about how Doc Gooden was messed with by trying too hard to bring along a third pitch after his huge early success with the Mets has me thinking that an above-average to plus FB and a SL that has elicited comparisons to a guy named Carlton would suffice three times through a lineup quite nicely — but now that his FB command has wavered and the overall velocity is down across the board, well, you have to wonder. He’s still a big-time talent and a likely top five lock, but I’d definitely bet the field over him if we’re talking strictly 1-1.
Things move quickly in the world of amateur draft prospects, but I think all that still stands today. Rodon is still a primarily FB/SL pitcher who is struggling (for him) this season in large part due to inconsistent command and decreased velocity. Assuming those two things can be helped in pro ball, where does he fit in at the next level? Let’s explore.
Before going further it’s worth saying that I don’t mean to disregard the non-FB/SL assortment of pitches Rodon offers, but I’ve yet to personally see or hear from somebody I trust about a consistent third big league pitch at this point in his development. Some like the change (“inconsistent, but will flash average or better”), others vouch for the upside of one of his two variations of the curve (harder one used primarily in bullpens, low-80s one occasionally mixed in during games), and I’ve heard a few who think he can differentiate enough between his “true” slider and an even harder low-90s cut-slider to keep hitters off balance with hard, harder, and hardest stuff.
Using the Fangraphs 2013 leaderboards, I found a few guys who got away with FB/SL combos and little else last year: Greg Holland, Patrick Corbin, Chris Archer, and Mike Dunn. None are great fits as direct comparisons, though I guess the two lefthanders (Corbin and Dunn) provide the easiest to see templates to success. Corbin’s slider is a very different version than Rodon’s (nor nearly as firm), and he does mix in a changeup every ten pitches or so. Dunn matches up better across the board (averages 94 MPH with FB and 87 with SL, closer in body type, etc.), but likely represents Rodon’s non-catastrophic injury worst case scenario as a big leaguer. Interesting.
I then looked back at every pitcher in the Fangraphs database that “often” (defined as 15% or more usage) threw a “hard” slider (defined as 85 MPH or more), while also adjusting when possible for handedness (edge for lefthanders, obviously), usage of other pitches (fewer the better), and body type (mostly eliminating sub-six-footers). Not exactly the most scientific approach, but, hey, the price is right. Four names stood out to me.
The best historical comp I could come up with, and it is admittedly a very generous one (and a bit of a stretch using some of the criteria listed above), is former starter/reliever and likely future HOFer John Smoltz. The two share a similar hard fastballs/slider combination that each leans/leaned on heavily, with the biggest stuff exception being Smoltz’s reliance (especially later in his career) on a splitter as a third pitch (10.2% usage). There’s also the thorny issue of handedness being flipped, but that’s something I can personally get past when the rest of the pieces fit. My memory would also say that, despite very similar listed frames (6-3, 220ish to 240ish), the body types weren’t all that close, and, more importantly, the athleticism was a separator in Smoltz’s favor. Still, not the most unrealistic best-case (probably should capitalize and bold that before I get in trouble with the comps are evil crowd: BEST-CASE) scenario comparison out there, I believe. Close, sure, but I could have thrown Koufax, Unit, or Spahn out there instead. (That’s a joke, everybody!). If you want to throw this away because comping anybody to a HOF-caliber player is a waste of time, well, then I wouldn’t blame you. All part of working through this particular thought exercise.
The best comp based off an existing one that I could find is Texas lefthander Robbie Ross. Stay with me on this one. Ross is far more dependent on his fastball than Rodon, but he is at least almost exclusively a FB/SL pitcher. The fact that he has had success going this route is encouraging to me, especially when you consider Rodon’s fastball and slider are both ahead of where Ross is at. The reason I’ve categorized him as a comp based off an existing one is because there have been some that have compared Rodon to Ross’s Texas teammate, Matt Harrison. For various reasons, mostly due to a far better-rounded repertoire, I don’t really see the Harrison comp, though I think the bodies match up fairly well. Ross has a completely different body type, so keep that in mind here. Far from perfect yet again, but I liked seeing a young player succeeding while relying solely on his fastball and slider.
The best college prospect comp I could muster is former Tar Heel and current Red Sox pitcher Andrew Miller. A part of me feels like we’ve seen this Rodon story unfold already, you know? This is a good comp, and, in my opinion, so obvious that I can’t believe the major publications haven’t run with it yet. Miller, though longer, leaner, and more athletic than Rodon, entered his draft year with very similar 1-1 hype. I saw Miller about a dozen times in his last two years at Carolina, and the buzz at every one of his starts was palpable. His fastball was explosive and his slider was even better. Even to an untrained eye like mine you could tell his mechanics needed some ironing out in pro ball, but he was still such an easy prospect to dream on. So, let’s circle back: highly touted lefthander from a major university in North Carolina, plus to plus-plus fastball/slider combination, underdeveloped changeup, and command issues stemming from mechanical inconsistencies. Come on! As a reliever now Miller is exclusively FB/SL after completely ditching the changeup after 2012. If we’re talking floor as a big leaguer, I think Miller is an interesting recent data point to consider. Better than the earlier Mike Dunn floor, and with the added collegiate prospect parallels to boot.
The best overall comp I can come up with is current Giants star lefthander Madison Bumgarner. Hear me out. Outside of Bumgarner’s own interesting career path to date (hard to believe now, but he was an extremely divisive prospect just a few short years ago) and his edge in athleticism, I think the comp is pretty damn near ideal if you keep an open mind towards comps in general. Baseball America had Bumgarner at 92-94 (97 peak) with his fastball pre-draft in 2007 with a “fringe-average” breaking ball at 81 MPH. They also cited his inconsistent mechanics and below-average changeup. After the 2009 season, they made note of plus makeup (“ornery competitor” with “zero fear”). His last prospect year (2010) brought news about his now “outstanding” slider and exceptional “mound savvy.” Does that not sound similar to the path Rodon has been on over these last few years? The frame matches up fairly well (Bumgarner is listed at 6-5, 235) and no starter that I found relies more on his slider than the San Francisco ace (over 34% in his career!). Bumgarner has found a way to mix in more changeups and curveballs than scouting reports anticipated, but that’s a credit to the aforementioned makeup and the excellent developmental staff in the Giants organization. No comp is perfect, but if Rodon straightens himself out in pro ball, I could see him doing Bumgarner-type things. He’ll throw harder, and chances are he won’t have as deep an overall arsenal (though it wouldn’t shock me if better instruction helped fine-tune a better third pitch than we’re currently seeing going forward), but his slider should be a similarly special pitch and nobody disputes his similar competitive zeal for the game. I don’t want to like this comp as much as I do, but it’s not without merit.
The biggest thing that gives me pause is the developmental years Rodon “lost” at college. Bumgarner turned 22 on August 1, 2011. That was the middle of a his first full season as a big league starter, a year he pitched to a 2.67 FIP in 204.2 innings. That’s good. Rodon will likely enter his first full season as a professional (at AA, most likely) at 22 next year. That doesn’t mean Rodon won’t reach the same heights Bumgarner has, but it does give him a long road to catch up. Guess that falls under the “no comp is perfect” caveat. I tried to track what would have been Bumgarner’s “college years” developmentally in the preceding paragraph, but comparing prospects from HS to college guys, pitchers especially, is a fool’s errand. I’m clearly a fool and am quite alright with that.
Job on the line, I don’t think I’d pound the table for the Rodon as Bumgarner comp, but suggesting it as an upside feels optimistically fair, if that makes sense. I did save one comp for last…
SUMMARY and CONCLUSION
Carlos Rodon has disappointed in 2014. His disappointment has more to do with meaningful changes to his professional projection as outlined above, though the industry hype machine that helped build him does seem unfairly quick to tear him down. He’s still a really good pro prospect with many favorable career paths before him, and it isn’t outlandish to believe he winds up as one of the (if not the) best college pitchers from this draft class. He’s also not a sure thing, and that’s before any potential concerns about overuse are brought into play. I think this season is actually a fairly instructive one to keep in mind as he beings his professional journey: enough flashes of ace-caliber stuff to frustrate you that he isn’t better than he is while still putting up consistently above-average results. You want him to be more than he is (perhaps rightfully so), therefore it is hard to appreciate how well he’s actually turned out. If that sounds a little bit like a lefthanded version of Josh Johnson, another hard-throwing FB/SL heavy (88.1% combined usage) pitcher with a checkered injury history, then we’re on the same page.