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A lot of legendary pitchers have never thrown a no-hitter, so you never take one for granted. That said, when Lucas Giolito tossed his no-hitter last year, it felt like a natural culmination of his career arc, especially the portion where James McCann caught him. With their extrasensory connection, it would’ve been weird if they couldn’t figure out how to make such history.
Conversely, a battery of Carlos Rodón and Zack Collins is a hastily slapped-together dinner of leftovers from separate meals. Rodón looked like he’d thrown his last pitch in a White Sox uniform during the Game 3 disaster last year. Collins wasn’t a great bet to catch many pitches this year, especially when Jonathan Lucroy showed up on a minor league deal and earned rave reviews from everybody.
Yet a few things made immortality possible. The White Sox fired Rick Renteria, the guy who looked more done with Rodón than anybody else. Rodón remained healthy over the course of an entire winter and spring, and Ethan Katz helped him find the right method of preparation that had long eluded him. Tony La Russa raved about Lucroy in Arizona, but we hadn’t yet learned that he won’t say a bad thing about anybody wearing a White Sox logo, and so Collins had a lane after all. He went out and earned that job, putting himself in position to catch this performance.
Even then, Rodón’s no-hitter on Wednesday night still seems premature. Rodón showed flashes of a dominant form during his first start of the season, at least with regard to the sizzle on his fastball. But while he struck out nine over five innings, his command was still such that he needed 95 pitches, so inefficiency remained an issue. Throw in a stomach issue that knocked him out of his scheduled slot on Monday, and it seemed like any leap would have to wait, if it arrived at all.
It wasn’t even clear that greatness was upon us during the early innings on Wednesday. Rodon’s fastball sat in the low-90’s early, and it was accompanied by his changeup. The slider didn’t do much for him the few times he threw it, failing to generate a swinging strike until the fifth inning.
Somehow, the guy who wasn’t supposed to be a catcher shifted early to a changeup-heavy game plan for a pitcher who typically lives and dies with his slider, and shaped an accurate strike zone when his previous attempts suggested he wasn’t good for it. The White Sox front office employs most of the people who believed in Collins’ ability to stay behind the plate, and the guy who drafted him in 2016 couldn’t help but say he told you so.
And somehow, Rodón, the guy who couldn’t stay healthy enough to average even 60 innings over the last four years, mastered the concept of conservation. He opened by sitting 91, and he closed it by hitting 99.
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Thanks to Giolito, White Sox fans aren’t strangers to the concept of a pitcher reinventing himself, but the course Rodón chose still surprises. Giolito had a physical transformation, at least with regards to his dramatically shorter arm swing. Rodón looks largely the same on the mound, whether at rest or in motion. He still has the beard, the high socks, an extra button unclasped and no undershirt underneath. His leg kick is a little smaller, and maybe his arm doesn’t reach back quite as far, but he can still overthrow, fall off, grunt and hop when a pitch isn’t to his liking.
The most remarkable visible evidence of a new Rodón lies within his arsenal, specifically the fastball. Giolito lost some steam on his heat during his lost years, but it’s because his mechanics got all tangled up. With Rodón, his velocity loss was for scary, invasive reasons. He underwent a shoulder surgery at the end of the 2017 season, compounded by Tommy John surgery in 2019. He velocity recovered partially toward the end of another abbreviated year in 2020, but with zero life and location, giving it the appearance of overcompensation. There’s a reason why Rodón became the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter within two years of Tommy John. Bouncing back is damned hard.
Two starts into this season, he’s reclaimed his “power pitcher” label.
Rodon’s fastball is Robert Downey Jr. in cowhide. It probably should’ve died years ago, but here it is starring in its own action franchise. I think I once saw an article saying Rodón’s fastball ate seven meals and 18,000 calories a day while training for the role.
Should anybody tell you they saw this coming, I wouldn’t trust them with even a Netflix login. Maybe it could’ve been said in 2016, when Rodón closed out his uneven-but-promising first full season by limiting Cleveland to two hits over eight innings. That was the kind of performance expected from the guy drafted third overall, and paid a higher bonus than anybody that year, but he seldom found ways to summon that form. The no-hitter was his first-ever complete game, and although his 2018 season featured a number of deep starts, they never approached the kind of achievement like the one he just pulled off.
Rodón admitted as such after the game, telling reporters, “I’ve never really [dominated]. I’ve never done it on this level at least.” Rodón didn’t see it coming, so much so that when his defense got him the 27th out, he didn’t know where to go. While Giolito and McCann met between the plate and the mound for a picture-perfect embrace after Adam Engel caught the final out last year, Rodón ended up going for Yoán Moncada, putting his catcher in the awkward position of the third-wheeling big spoon.
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You shouldn’t be embarrassed if you didn’t want Rodón to return to the White Sox this winter. And I’m not just saying that because I was among the unenthused, and I don’t wish to feel shame myself. The White Sox had pitched a healthy Rodón as the best possible addition they could’ve made at previous points in the rebuild(s), and Rodón’s body never proved up to the task. If you’ve already been fooled twice, the axiom has already run its course.
Besides, my main sticking point with relying on Rodón had more to do with the grind, not the potential. I covered my ass a little bit by covering how it could be different start to start:
The optimist says that a Rodón with power at least has the foundation to rediscover an arsenal nearer to its peak, and the strange 2020 season was not conducive to an oft-injured pitcher attempting to manage layers of rehab. The pessimist says that any old season hasn’t been conducive to Rodón’s durability, so what would be different about this one?
Maybe Tony La Russa and Ethan Katz. At the end of his tenure, Rick Renteria’s management of Rodón resembled a sarcastic “Thanks For The Upgrade” card to the front office. As I mentioned in the breaking news post, I assumed Rodón was gone because Renteria was staying, and it looks like the joke’s on me. We still have the baggage, but the guys now overseeing his season don’t. There could be some benefit to having two sets of fresh eyes.
To that end, so far, so good. Rodón’s health record will still require qualifiers, disclaimers and hedges even after the no-hitter, because he still has 30 turns in front of him in 2021, and he’s never taken more than 28 in a year. Giolito’s no-no put a stamp on his rise. With Rodón, there’s no real way to know how he’ll handle these heights. It’s not as fluky as Phil Humber’s perfect game in terms of talent, but the body of work makes it just as unclear where he’ll go from here.
An encore might be difficult, but I’m at least crossing fingers for a coda. The start justifies everything in the interim. It justifies the White Sox bringing him back to plug the back end of the rotation despite the odds. It justifies Rodón’s stubbornness about starting, even if his multiple surgeries and weapons-grade slider probably would’ve resulted in a bullpen assignment for most pitchers and teams. It justifies your White Sox-watching habit, because if Rodón was the starter you least wanted to see this year, what can the other four guys do?
It’s generally unwise to weigh results over process, but if that makes you itchy, first imagine Rodón reaching these heights with a different team. That should buy enough time to see if Rodón has more results in store, and if he somehow delivers on that part of the deal, then you’d have to change your entire concept of why the White Sox brought him back to begin with. Baseball’s the most fun when it makes you reconsider what you know, and I love having no idea what Carlos Rodón can do now.