Feature photo courtesy of Billy Bob Bain.
Pretend you’re a Major League hitter. What starting pitchers would you least like to face two days in a row, assuming the pitcher was cloned and at full strength for the second start? You might say Clayton Kershaw, or Felix Hernandez, or Matt Harvey, or some other top of the line ace. But if your answer is Chris Sale, the situation may not be hypothetical, because Carlos Rodon appears to be developing into a mini-me of the White Sox ace.
The similarities between the two are numerous: both lefties with the same pitch repertoires, both tremendously successful in college, both taken in the first round by the Chicago White Sox. Sale won Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year honors in 2010 as a junior at Florida Gulf Coast, while Rodon won Louisville Slugger’s National Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2012 at NC State. Both were named All-Americans and finished their collegiate careers with earned run averages in the mid- to low-2.00 range and with roughly 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Sale was taken 13th overall in the 2010 draft, while Rodon went third overall in 2014. Neither player spent much time in the minors, or any at the Double-A level for that matter: Sale reached the majors within a couple months of being drafted, debuting on Aug. 6 that year. Rodon was called up April 20, 2015, less than a year after his selection. Chicago couldn’t keep either hurler off the club because of their statuses as top prospects in the sport; MLB.com had Sale ranked the 25th best prospect in 2011, while Rodon was 19th before his callup.
In both instances, the White Sox intended to use the pitchers out of the bullpen at first, and with Sale, they succeeded. Sale spent 2010 and 2011 in the pen, making 79 appearances and no starts, while earning enough trust to make 12 saves. Finally allowed to start in 2012 at the age of 23, Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA, making the All-Star team and finishing sixth in the American League Cy Young voting. Sale continued to improve, making two more All-Star squads and two more appearances in the top five of Cy Young voting, capped by last year’s third-place finish.
Perhaps it was Sale’s tremendous success that lead to the White Sox abandoning their plan to use Rodon in the bullpen earlier than intended. Rodon made just three relief appearances, giving up two runs in 6.1 innings with nine hits, four walks and four strikeouts. With a doubleheader scheduled against the Cincinnati Reds on May 9, Chicago needed a spot starter for the second game and turned to Rodon. He impressed with two runs in six innings and eight strikeouts, albeit with four walks.
Chicago saw enough in that start to give Rodon another turn in the rotation, a game in Oakland in which he struggled, giving up five runs in four innings with six walks. The White Sox stuck with him rather than send him back to the pen with diminished confidence, and he has rewarded their faith with four consecutive outings of at least six innings and no more than one earned run allowed. Rodon even struck out a career-high 10 batters against the Rangers June 4.
Rodon’s impressive stretch comes as his command has improved. Rodon has a pitch repertoire strikingly similar to Sale’s, with an electric fastball and wipeout slider. Pitch velocity can be a double-edged sword, as fastballs can be difficult to control at high speeds. A well-located fastball can blow a batter away, but a misplaced one that catches too much of the plate can be hit hard and sent a long way.
Rodon’s fastball has averaged about 94 miles per hour in the majors so far, and indeed, scouts had rated his command as his worst attribute. His command is in fact well behind Sale’s at the moment, as Rodon has thrown 42.8 percent of pitches inside the strike zone and has gotten 50.6 percent of first pitches to go for strikes. Sale has averaged 47.4 percent of pitches in the zone in his career and 69.6 percent of his first pitches have been strikes this year. That gap should be expected, as Rodon is a rookie and Sale has been a top 10 pitcher in the majors in each of the last three seasons.
But during Rodon’s recent hot streak, he has shown plenty of encouraging signs that he is improving his pitch placement, and it appears he’s taking pages out of Sale’s playbook to ring up batters. With two strikes, Sale will typically rear back and fire a high fastball or will get the hitter off balance with a sweeping slider, which often goes through the zone and lands at the feet of right handed batters.
A recent example of the fastball, with Sale blowing 98 mph steam past Evan Gattis:
And now here’s Rodon on May 29, also against the Astros, dialing up some 96 mph heat and ringing up George Springer:
But fastballs can be similar to each other, no matter the pitcher, as there usually isn’t much movement from them. Breaking balls are more unique in motion and better distinguish pitchers, so let’s compare the sliders of the pair.
Here’s Sale freezing the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez with a slider that crosses the zone and lands on the inside corner for a called strike three:
And now here’s Rodon getting the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus swinging with the same pitch and location:
Those pitches are eerily similar in movement, and Rodon showed great control on that pitch by painting the inside corner.
Sale also frequently embarrases hitters by fooling them into chasing sliders that cross the plate close to the zone but land in the dirt, at the feet of right-handed batters and in the opposite box of lefties. The technique conjures memories of recent Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson, another hard-throwing lefty with a devastating slider.
Rangers rookie Hanser Alberto recently got a look at Sale’s specialty, and could only muster an embarrassing swing in which he abandons his plant foot and any hope of decent contact:
Houston’s Jose Altuve, owner of an Astros record 225 hits last season, didn’t look much better than Alberto facing Rodon’s offering, flailing at a slider that at first looked like a strike but ended up requiring the catcher to quickly shift into Altuve’s batter’s box to prevent the pitch from reaching the backstop:
Altuve also loses balance on his plant foot and takes a swing he probably wasn’t proud of. Having a high octane fastball forces batters to prepare to swing early, and that opens the door for pitchers to capitalize with off-speed stuff. Rodon has been doing so with his deceptive slider.
Rodon is in a great position to learn from a master at his craft and develop by working with Sale. Think of Aaron Rodgers serving as the underling of legendary Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Rodgers went on to have a tremendous career of his own. But here’s the scary difference: Favre was 36 when Rodgers entered his first season, while Sale turned 26 in March. This is not a passing of the torch, this is a “together we can rule the galaxy” scenario.
Just imagine the two-headed monster of Sale followed by his carbon copy in Rodon. Sale goes eight innings with 13 punchouts the first game of the series, and is figuratively back on the mound the next day in the body of Rodon, ready to claim more victims. That’s the stuff of nightmares for opposing batters, and it could be reality very soon.