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Yankees pitcher Carlos Rodón looked new and improved — and finally comfortable — in his first home start of 2024

In Sports
April 10, 2024

NEW YORK — Carlos Rodón ended his 2023 season with perhaps the single worst start in baseball history. On Tuesday, that nightmarish outing felt like a distant memory.

Against the lowly Royals back on Sept. 29, the Yankees starter allowed eight earned runs without recording a single out, only the third such instance in MLB history. The horror show reached a boiling point when, during a mound visit, Rodón turned his back on Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake. It was an appropriately disastrous conclusion to Rodón’s tumultuous first season in pinstripes. After inking a six-year, $162 million contract in December 2022, he finished his maiden voyage in the Bronx with a 6.85 ERA across 14 starts.

Over the winter, the concerns and the headlines poured in: flop, waste of money, another starting pitcher who cashed out, then fell off. This spring, an off-camera backfield performance in which Rodón allowed four home runs elicited scorn and jokes online. And his fastball velocity in camp was under the microscope. His ability to regain form, particularly with ace Gerrit Cole on the mend for the foreseeable future, was a crucial, though very uncertain, key to the Yankees’ season.

Six months after his historic stinker in Kansas City, Rodón looks like a rejuvenated figure.

On Tuesday against the Marlins, in his first home start of the season, the 31-year-old hurler showed the Yankees what they paid for. For six innings, Rodón breezed through Miami’s overmatched lineup, punching out six without allowing an earned run. He commanded his trademark, high-spin heater to the arm-side part of the plate, back-footed the slider to right-handed hitters, mixed in his changeup to tally whiffs and induced early-count weak contact with his new cutter.

A walk, an error on a would-be double-play and an infield single bounced Rodón from the game in the seventh inning after just 89 pitches, but there’s no doubt that Tuesday was a leap in the right direction, easily his best outing as a Yankee. When New York manager Aaron Boone strolled to the mount to remove Rodón from the game, the 37,000 souls at Yankee Stadium showed their appreciation with a warm cheer — a far cry from the boos that rained down upon Rodón a year ago.

It was all a glimpse of both the Rodón the Yankees thought they were getting a year ago and a new, improved version of the pitcher.

“A step in the right direction today,” he told reporters after the game. “Confidence is growing, for sure.”

At his best in 2022 with the San Francisco Giants, Rodón was an All-Star because (1) his fastball was incredibly difficult to square up and (2) his slider kept hitters guessing. When he’s humming, Rodón can afford to be liberal with his vertical fastball location as long as he keeps the pitch on the outer half to right-handed hitters. On Tuesday, his first-inning at-bat against Bryan De La Cruz was a great example of that: two foul balls on in-zone four-seam fastballs, followed by a knee-buckling, thanks-for-coming slider that sent De La Cruz packing.

Two batters later, Rodón showed off some of his new tricks. Facing veteran slugger Josh Bell, he unleashed a devastating changeup, cutter, changeup combination to sit Bell down on three pitches. When thrown in on the hands to right-handed hitters, the cutter — which Rodón and the Yankees added to his arsenal in the offseason — is a perfect complement to a changeup low and away, a pitch Rodón struggled to use effectively in 2023.

In the clubhouse after the 3-2 victory, Rodón admitted to Yahoo Sports that the sequence to Bell was something he probably couldn’t have pulled off a year ago. The work he put in over the winter — arriving at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa in January and spending hours in the club’s “gas station” pitching lab alongside Blake, assistant pitching coach Desi Druchel and director of pitching Sam Briend — already seems to be paying off. Rodón’s outing Tuesday lowered his season ERA to 1.72 over his first three starts.

But perhaps more important than the final line was how Rodón looked atop the hill: loose, easy, free. A year ago, pitching looked like a laborious chore. He rarely appeared comfortable in his new surroundings, the pitching version of trying to sleep on a bad hotel mattress. His starts were a struggle to endure, not an opportunity to shine.

It’s early days, but that dynamic feels different now. On Tuesday, Rodón was floating, flowing. Granted, not every start will be this easy — the worst-record-in-baseball 2024 Marlins are a pitcher’s best friend — but six scoreless is far better than eight runs and no outs.

And the Yankees need the boost. Despite Cole’s relatively optimistic outlook, there’s still no estimated return date for the reigning Cy Young. And even if and when Cole gets off the injured list, the Yankees will expect Rodón to start Game 2 of a postseason series. That’s what they paid him to do, and on Tuesday in the Bronx, that felt like a real possibility for the first time in a long time.

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