Baseball

Knights’ pitcher Carlos Rodon serves up a baffling slider

The Charlotte Knights’ Carlos Rodon has an elite slider, a pitch that makes him the top prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization.
The Charlotte Knights’ Carlos Rodon has an elite slider, a pitch that makes him the top prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Scouts sometimes call it corkscrewing.

It’s what happens when a right-handed batter thinks he’s looking at an inside fastball out of the hand of a left-handed pitcher, but is actually being thrown a sharp slider.

As the ball travels toward the plate, its tight spin causes a late break down and in toward the feet of the batter, who struggles to react.

The result is an awkward-looking swing where the batter pulls his hands in and rotates his hips in an effort to make contact, with the follow-through spinning his body almost completely around.

White Sox top prospect and current Charlotte Knights’ ace Carlos Rodon is a master in the art of generating such futile-looking swings.

MLB.com ranked the left-hander as the No.15 prospect in all of baseball entering the 2015 season, and based on his early performance, that ranking might be conservative.

Scouts grade each type of pitch a prospect throws on a 20-to-80 scale, with a 50 being considered Major League average. (Why 20-to-80? Well, the short answer is because no player’s ability is rated more than three standard deviations above or below the league average).

Rodon’s slider, which breaks late and hard across two different planes (both down and in), grades out as an 80, which is rare not just for a 22-year-old who was drafted third overall in 2014 out of N.C. State, but for a professional of any age.

“It’s right there with them,” said White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn when asked if Rodon might possess the best slider in minor league baseball. “If it’s not the best, it’s certainly in the conversation.”

What helps Rodon’s slider is his plus fastball – in scouting terms, a 93-95 mph fastball with movement that grades 60 out of 65 on the scouts’ scale. His fastball also is ranked as the best in the White Sox system by Baseball America.

Because Rodon, who is 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, throws both pitches from the same angle, deciphering which is actually on its way to the plate can be maddening.

The last batter Rodon faced in his first start of 2015 struck out looking on a 97-mph fastball in the fifth inning. It was Rodon’s 87th pitch of the night and it came from the stretch with a runner on third.

The most likely explanation for why the batter took strike three? He was guessing slider and couldn’t pick up the rotation in time to adjust.

As of Wednesday in 29 1/3 career minor league innings, Rodon has struck out 47 (or 14.42 per nine innings), while allowing nine earned runs.

For reference, current White Sox ace Chris Sale, who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen his first year with the White Sox rushing him to the majors, struck out batters at a rate of 16.52 per nine innings.

The scary part for hitters is that Rodon’s not going to his slider as often this season, as he continues to work on the development of his change-up that’s receiving grades in the 50 to 60 range.

Sale, whom Baseball America ranked as having the second-best slider in the majors in 2014, was the best pitcher most Knights fans have had the chance to follow in person. Rodon – who won’t be in Charlotte much longer – could challenge for that title.

“I think most scouts would say Rodon’s slider is a 70-75 with a future 80 just to protect themselves a little bit, but it’s right there,” said Hahn. “It’s a devastating pitch and one that he’s already shown has the ability to be effective against big league hitters.”

Hahn then referenced a four-inning, nine-strikeout performance Rodon put up against the Kansas City Royals during spring training. All nine strikeouts were on sliders.

In his early high school years, Rodon threw more over the top than his current three-quarters delivery. It wasn’t until a showcase traveling team coach suggested the change in arm slot when he was 16 years old that things began to come together.

“My command got better and I started throwing a lot harder,” Rodon said. “But I was still throwing more of a ‘slurve’ than a slider.”

N.C. State pitching coach Tom Holliday is responsible for what happened next.

“Holliday basically told me to throw (my slider) just like my fastball, but to throw it hard,” said Rodon. “That’s when the depth started to come along with the velocity and from there it just took off. I started throwing it a lot and getting comfortable with it. It’s just become second nature.”

Rodon says that when he throws the slider, nothing changes from the motion he uses with his fastball until the final moment, when he comes over the top of the ball and tries to “almost hit himself in the right hip” with his follow through.

The result is a pitch roughly 8 mph slower than his fastball that – when thrown correctly – doesn’t begin to break until it is three-quarters of the way to the batter.

And by that point it’s too late.

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