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Johnny Cueto hasn’t been every bit as good as Carlos Rodón, and Rodón really drove home the point on Saturday night. After Cueto went out and threw eight tidy shutout innings against the Tigers, Rodón went and threw his first complete game since his no-hitter, striking out 12 Padres while hitting 98 in the ninth inning.
Qualifiers are needed to equate the two, and I’ll offer one: Cueto has been every bit as good as Rodón when accounting for the fact that both were $3 million signings, or thereabouts (Cueto’s was a prorated $4.2 million deal). At that level for a starting pitcher — Vince Velasquez money, in other words — I think there’s a ceiling for judging quality before excellence becomes overkill. As in, “I get it, I get it, you’re underpaid. Enjoy the next bite at the apple.”
Cueto doesn’t quite match Rodón’s firepower from his Cy Young-caliber start to 2021, but he’s delivering more innings per outing, even when accounting for an emergency long relief appearance from which Rodón likely would have been shielded. (I’ve also included Rodón’s current performance with the Giants, and Cueto again compares well in terms of innings per start and general run prevention, even if he requires more help from his defense.)
The fact that Rodón provided all that 2021 production for $3 million was why I understood the individual impulse to shy away from issuing him the qualifying offer. They might not have liked the odds of him holding up for a repeat season at six times the cost, so they cashed in their winnings.
It just made less sense alongside the decision to exercise Craig Kimbrel’s $16 million option, which tied their hands until late in spring training. In the interim, they resigned themselves to spreading around the savings to a mess of non-impact role players, one of whom was injured.
Maybe they couldn’t have known that Cueto would fill Rodón’s shoes so capably as a bargain starter, but directing resources toward impact players stands a better chance at amplifying a successful signing like Cueto, rather than forcing him to overcome the replacement-level production elsewhere. Despite everything Cueto is giving them, the Sox are only 5-5 in his starts, although that’s yet another way he holds up against Rodón. The Giants are 8-9 when he takes the mound.
Between the high-powered arsenal and an innings limit that’s lower than his peers, Michael Kopech was the White Sox’s original hope of replacing Rodón without losing much of their stride. They were winning that bet over the first two months, but since the knee injury on June 12, he’s been relegated to maintaining improvement over Dallas Keuchel.
He’s 0-4 with a 6.86 ERA in his four starts since the pop, with 23 hits on top of 11 walks against just 17 strikeouts over 21 innings.
He’s lost about a tick off his fastball’s average velocity and some of the ride, but what’s especially absent is his inability to find the higher 90s when he needs it. More than 40 percent of his fastballs were clocked at 95 or better before the knee betrayed him, and nearly a quarter of his pitches cracked 96. Those pitches have dried up on him.
The last column shows that Kopech isn’t spending too much time in the low-90s, so it doesn’t seem like his arm is shot. It is fair to call it less dynamic, and I wonder whether it’s cutting into one of the things that made him special over the first two months.
Going back to Rodón, one of the things that helped transform him into the beast of the last two years was his ability to ramp up his velocity over the course of the game. When he starts at 94 and finishes at 98, it helps diminish any potential pitfalls with the Times Through the Order Penalty because he’s basically acting as his own reliever.
Through early June, Kopech didn’t feature that same slow rise that Rodón developed, but he avoided a significant velocity drop in the back half of his starts. Statcast shows that Kopech threw 23 fastballs 96 or better the third time through the order before the knee injury, but he’s only had one such fastball over his last four starts.
Kopech’s season TTOP stats still turn conventional wisdom on its head …
- First PA: .210/333/.290 over 126 PA
- Second PA: .182/.256/.364 over 121 PA
- Third PA: .122/.229/.342 over 48 PA
… but the third-time-through numbers are buoyed by starting the season holding opponents hitless in their first 29 at-bats. Those numbers were insane and due to regress, but if Kopech’s fastball is flatter toward the end of his outings, they might flip on them in a hurry.
- Before injury: 0-for-21, 3 BB, 7 K
- Since injury: 5-for-21, 3 BB, 5 K, 3 HR
Kopech and Tony La Russa spoke vaguely of mechanical issues in need of ironing, and there have been some release point inconsistencies since coming back. Perhaps he can tighten up a slider that’s spun on him as of late, and that’ll take the stress off the fastball issues.
However, if the slider has been relatively unremarkable all year, and the fastball’s immense effectiveness had masked deficiencies elsewhere, then Kopech might be more of a midseason project than the White Sox hoped. Let’s see how these elements progress — or not — when this afternoon’s start against Detroit doubles his July sample size.