PEORIA, Ariz. — Dioner Navarro and Carlos Rodon are still getting acquainted with each other, but the veteran White Sox catcher already knows how good a slider second-year left-hander’s slider possesses.
“It’s pretty good,” Navarro grinned. “It’s pretty good.”
Navarro, though, called for exactly zero sliders during Rodon’s start against the San Diego Padres on Friday. He caught him before in bullpen sessions and saw the slider then, but for the pair’s first time working together in a game setting, he wanted to see what Rodon could do just throwing fastballs and changeups.
The result: Rodon struck out three, didn’t issue a walk and scattered two hits over four shutout innings. The 23-year-old displayed exemplary fastball command, using it to keep the ball on the ground (six groundouts, including a double play) and cruise through his second Cactus League start.
So when was the last time Rodon made it through a start without throwing his trusty slider?
“That was the first time in a while,” he said. ‘Maybe since, like, middle school.”
Rodon’s fastball command escaped him at times last season, leading to 2014’s No. 3 overall pick averaging 4.59 walks per nine innings. But as he started to throw his fastball for more strikes and, more importantly, place the pitch better in the strike zone, his results improved. He finished the season with a 1.81 ERA in his final eight starts, providing him with some good momentum heading into the offseason and now spring training.
“Yeah, for sure,” Rodon said when asked if he has more confidence in his fastball command. “Building off the end of that run last year kind of helped moving into this season, I just had that mindset to pitch the same way.”
Rodon heavily relied on his slider last year, throwing it about 31 percent of the time. It’s certainly his out-pitch — nearly one in every five generated a swing and a miss — but as Rodon enters his first full year as a major league starter, he knows he’ll have to do better to set up that biting slider with better-placed fastballs and changeups.
“Being able to go fastball-changeup and be able to succeed and compete with (the Padres) was pretty awesome,” Rodon said. (It) gave me a little more confidence.”
Rodon’s ability to dial his fastball up into the upper 90’s, combined with the action on it, make it a difficult pitch for opposing hitters to do much with when it’s located well. That’s what happened Friday, with Padres hitters only able to meekly manage two hits and a bunch of ground balls.
The slider will be back — probably in Rodon's next start, and certainly by the start of the 2016 season. But if it’s back with a consistently-effective fastball, the N.C. State product will be in good position to continue the success with which he ended last year.
“I knew slider was one of (his) better pitches,” Navarro said. “I wanted to see how far he can go without it, and he did a great job. He was spotting really well his fastballs, and he threw a couple of good changeups. I guess (it’s) a good sign for us.”