It’s funny how a crow hop could change a player’s fortunes.
But all it took was a little skip off his back foot before he releases a warmup toss to get Carlos Rodon headed in the right direction.
The suggestion came last summer courtesy of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, a potential remedy Rodon said they stumbled upon in a bullpen session as they searched for answers to his control issues.
It took quickly and instantly brought command and consistency to Rodon’s side sessions.
The improved work between starts also made a swift impact on the diamond and got Rodon closer to the expectations heaped upon him by everyone, himself included, when the White Sox drafted him third overall in 2014.
Perhaps even more so, it brought Rodon much-needed relief and a renewed sense of confidence as he went 5-2 with a 1.81 ERA in his final eight starts. Now, both Rodon -- who is set to pitch six innings in a simulated game Thursday in his final spring tune-up at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. -- and the White Sox are hopeful his late 2015 success translates into more of the same this season. Whether or not Rodon takes the next step could be critical for the White Sox plan to contend in 2016.
“I don’t want to sound conceited, but it was about time that it happened,” Rodon said. “Things come together. If you make those pitches on the side days, it’s going to come during the game. “But if you don’t, you can’t expect it in the game.
“You can’t expect it to happen.”
Rodon describes himself as a quiet, humble guy off the field.
He prefers to fish -- ocean, lake or stream -- with his dad, hunt white deer with his girlfriend and her dad or play golf with a friend. If he’s not in one of those spots, Rodon said he usually can be found at home with his dog, a 1-year-old German shepherd.
Last spring, even as he tried to impress them and make the club, Rodon made it a point to be seen but not heard in the clubhouse. Out of respect for teammates who had a much longer path to the majors, Rodon didn’t want to make waves in his first big league camp.
“He’s a very simple guy,” pitcher John Danks said. “Fits right in with us.”
But once he steps in between the lines, Rodon’s persona changes -- “that’s when you have your confidence, maybe a little cockiness,” Rodon said.
He’s the guy who last spring heard the team needed to see him throw more changeups and promptly threw 20 in a 94-pitch effort against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch.
He throws three different variations of an elite-level slider and a very good fastball when he commands it.
“He can be as good as anybody, really,” pitcher Chris Sale said. “His talent is through the roof.”
And prior to last year, when he walked 50 batters in the first 84 2/3 innings of his major league career, he had been that dominant pitcher for a long time.
The left-hander didn’t actually pitch until he attended Holly Springs (N.C.) High School even though he had been playing baseball since he first joined a rec league at age three. Rodon remembers that at first he was a thrower and not a pitcher. The command and stuff began to develop in his junior and senior years.
Once he reached North Carolina State, Rodon took off.
He went 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 17 games as a freshman and struck out 184 batters in 132 1/3 innings as a sophomore. It was right about then Rodon realized he may have a future in baseball. He started to attract attention as a potential first overall draft pick after a dominant performance for the USA College National team against Cuba in which he struck out 11 in 6 2/3 innings in July 2013.
“It was different,” Rodon said. “Never really was a guy that in the spotlight until college. I guess you take it for what it is. You try not to pay attention, try to push those things aside and do what you do on the field and stay humble.”
The rise continued after Rodon signed with the White Sox. He improved his changeup in the minors in 2014, was promoted twice and nearly reached the big leagues. Rodon drew rave reviews during his first big league camp and only spent 2 1/ 2 weeks at Triple-A Charlotte before he joined the White Sox.
[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]
But his struggles immediately started once he was in the majors.
Rodon walked three in his first game, a 2 1/3-inning stint in relief on April 21.
Though he’d win his first start (May 9), Rodon walked four batters in six innings. Then he walked six at Oakland and five at home against Cleveland.
Rodon had a 5.00 ERA and was issuing 5.32 walks per nine by the time August rolled around.
“That was tough, getting hit around a little bit, runs scored on you,” Rodon said. “Confidence goes down. But you’ve got to find a way to bring it back up and believe in yourself and it’s not easy.”
For as accomplished as he was, Cooper thought Rodon still had much to learn. White Sox general manager Rick Hahn suggested as much in April when he said the final phase of Rodon’s development would come in the big leagues.
For Cooper, it was the work in between starts that needed improvement.
“Even though he was one of the top picks in the nation, he had no idea about a lot of things,” Cooper said. “He’s was a very green guy.”
Then came the bullpen session.
Cooper can’t pinpoint the date and Rodon only recalls that it took place at U.S. Cellular Field. But the veteran coach made the suggestions in hopes it would help Rodon get extension and an “aggressive ride” going toward the plate.
Though he’s fuzzy on the details, Rodon remembers the impact.
“It was kind of a little breakthrough as far as consistency and command of everything,” Rodon said. “Feels like my body’s online with the catcher and the middle of the glove and its online toward the plate.”
Prior to that, Rodon was still in search of a consistent routine for his side sessions. But once he added the crow hop, the quality of Rodon’s work improved considerably.
The results soon followed.
Rodon struck out 11 in seven scoreless innings on Aug. 11. After that, the rookie never allowed more than two earned runs and completed at least six innings in his final eight starts. Rodon reduced his walks per nine to 3.46 over his final 54 2/3 innings.
He had rediscovered “the flow” he’d had on the mound the previous five years.
“You’re on a bike and your legs just keep going and if you want to tell yourself to stop you can, but you’re still riding along,” Rodon said. “Everything is just easy. You’re not thinking. It’s just blank. It just flows.”
The White Sox need a similar current in 2016.
Rodon isn’t being asked to be an ace, nor does he even have to be the second-best starter. But there’s a hope he can perform at a similar level as he did in August and September.
To do that, Rodon has to continue to command the fastball, which has been the focus of the majority of his work this spring.
“He must make the next step forward with the things we designate as areas to improve on and hopefully become the guy we all envision him to be and he wants to be -- a top-flight guy,” Cooper said.
White Sox manager Robin Ventura likes Rodon’s chances. After experiencing an 0-for-41 stretch during the 1990 season, Ventura is a firm believer in players who have rebounded from severe struggles to find success. The confidence grows, as does the knowledge of how to prepare one’s self for the next game.
“When you go through a slump, especially pitching-wise, you’re going to have doubts about being able to pitch up here, survive up here and help your team win,” Ventura said. “He’s always had confidence. But it can get a chunk blown out of it if he doesn’t pitch well. For him, the biggest thing is coming back from it, and our greatest lessons in this game is when you get knocked down a little bit and you get up and get back into it and succeed.
“He did that.”
Rodon gives a lot of credit to Cooper’s crow hop -- “I still use it now,” he said.
It’s part of his routine for bullpen sessions. Rodon thinks it helped him establish a way to work that can lead to success.
And it arrived at just the right time.
“It was just finding a routine and learning how to get guys out and get ahead,” Rodon said. “It helped me learn the game a little more knowing I had to get ahead, had to fight through stuff. “You’ve got to try to stop the bleeding.”
“I remember in my sides I was throwing real well and stuff was working and the routine was going real well and I was like, ‘Well, it’s about time this stuff is coming together.’ ”