Did the Yankees make a $162 Million dollar mistake?

MLB: New York Mets at New York Yankees, carlos rodon

After an underwhelming finish to the 2022 MLB Season, the New York Yankees had two goals in mind for the upcoming offseason. First and foremost was re-signing 2023 AL MVP Aaron Judge, which was no guarantee, and bolstering the team in order to beat the reigning World Series Champs in the Houston Astros. 

“Even though we have fallen short against Houston, it’s obviously any of the [teams] that are standing in our way between us and winning a World Series. We’ve got to improve ourselves and give ourselves the best shot.” Cashman said in a press conference after being swept in the 2022 ALCS. 

The Yankees went to work once the offseason started, they picked up Luis Severino’s club option, re-signed Anthony Rizzo, and inked Aaron Judge to a historic nine-year deal to make him a Yankee for the rest of his career. 

But Cashman continued to make moves, signing former Yankee Tommy Kanhle on a two-year deal and signing two-time all-star Carlos Rodon to a six-year, $162 million dollar deal. 

The Yankees need the 2022 version of Carlos Rodon

In 2022, Rodon was excellent with the San Francisco Giants, with a 2.88 ERA, 6.2 fWAR, and 33% strikeout rate. After opting out of a $22.5 million player option with the Giants, several teams went after him to try to secure a certified ace for their rotation. 

The Yankees signed Rodon to headline a rotation with five arms that all have received Cy Young votes in their careers. While all pitchers besides Gerrit Cole had issues starting the 2023 season, Rodon couldn’t pitch in a Yankee uniform until July due to injury and made his debut after a rough first half of the 2023 season.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Rodon’s 27 innings pitched in 2023 wasn’t optimal. In six starts, he went 1-4 with a 7.33 ERA, giving up eight total home runs and a -0.5 fWAR. After giving up five earned runs against the Astros in two innings, Rodon exited the game with a hamstring injury, putting him back on the IL less than a month after debuting for the Yankees.

It was announced that Rodon will start against the Nationals on August 22, but by this time in the season, the Yankees playoff push is pretty much non-existent, with a 2.6% chance to make the playoffs as of August 17, according to FanGraphs. This understandably has started a conversation on if Rodon’s $162 million dollar contract was really worth it, considering he only pitched in six games and 27 innings thus far in 2023, with another five years left on his contract.

Considering his history and issues with some of his pitches, this isn’t just an overreaction by Yankee fans but a concern that may come back to bite the Yankees down the road.

Rodon’s lengthy injury history

Rodon’s issues with injury are no mystery, with several major injuries before signing a six-year deal with the Yankees in December of 2022. 

In 2017, Rodon had arthroscopic shoulder surgery which ended his third season with the White Sox. He had missed three months due to bursitis in his left biceps, which made the 2017 season a wash. He came back in 2018 pitching over 120 innings and an ERA+ of 102, but in 2019 he had Tommy John surgery, ending his 2019 and much of his 2020 season. Even in 2021, a year in which he finished fifth in Cy Young voting and was an All-Star for the White Sox, he dealt with shoulder inflammation, and when he did come back to the White Sox in the playoffs, he was shelled. 

But 2022 was a different year, after signing a two-year $44 million deal with the San Francisco Giants, Rodon pitched a career-high 178 innings, earning another All-Star appearance and finishing sixth in Cy Young voting. Rodon also had the lowest FIP and xFIP in his career, which showed promise after years of some location issues. 

After signing with the Yankees, it was apparent that he would not start immediately, with it being reported by Aaron Boone in April that he was dealing with back stiffness and still dealing with forearm issues from 2022. Then in May, it was reported to Boone that he had issues with back stiffness, hurting his ability to pitch live sessions or start a rehab assignment.

When he eventually did debut for the Yankees, he was solid despite a horrid Yankee offense. It was the following starts that became a concern, ending in disaster with a hamstring setback against the Astros. Like in 2017, Rodon missed a lot of time early and late in the season in 2023, which adds to the long rap sheet of injuries he had in his career.

Free Agent Market

There were many pitchers on the market for the Yankees, but none besides deGrom had as much as Rodon for the long-term future. In retrospect, the only pitchers that could have produced a better result are Nathan Eovaldi, Zach Eflin, and Michael Lorenzen, who are all having very solid seasons. 

But the process on Rodon wasn’t awful, he was one of the best left-handed pitchers available for the foreseeable future and was coming off two excellent seasons where he finished with Cy Young votes. The other options for the Yankees were Verlander, who took a premium deal with the Mets, Kershaw, who made it clear he was between the Rangers and Dodgers, and deGrom, who has a worse injury history than Rodon, and most recently received Tommy John surgery.

What is up for debate is if the Yankees really needed to invest $162 million dollars into an ace when they already have Gerrit Cole, with multiple franchise shortstops on the market and a hole in left field with Aaron Hicks’s struggles.

The numbers

Looking at Rodon’s 27-inning sample, it’s a mixed bag. 

The good indicators on Rodon are that his velocity and “Stuff” haven’t taken a hit despite his injuries. Rodon’s average velocity in 2022 on his fastball is only a tenth of a tick down, and his slider, changeup, and curveball all have increased velocity from 2022. Eno Sarris’s Stuff+ model has him at 108, which ranks 130th out of the 480 pitchers that have pitched over 20 innings this year. 

The problems arrive when you look at his other peripheral stats. All of his average-based stats are a bit inflated due to the small sample size he has while pitching for the Yankees, but his Statcast metrics are concerning. In 2022, Rodon’s four-seam fastball had the fifth-highest run value, according to Statcast, and third highest four-seam fastball value. That pitch had a batting average of .213 against it, with a 28% whiff rate and a 30.5% strikeout rate. Rodon had the best pitch in baseball, according to Statcast in 2021, with a 26-run value four-seam fastball that had opponents batting under .200 with a whiff rate and strikeout rate of 30%. In 2023, his four-seamer is not what it was, with a -3 run value, according to Statcast, dropping down to a 19% whiff rate and an 11% strikeout percentage.

The biggest issue since coming back for Rodon is his command. Whiffs for Rodon are also down across the board. Even with his “Stuff” staying consistent, he’s not getting whiffs like he used to, decreasing 4.6% from 2022 to 2023. His called strike plus whiff percentage (CSW%) was the highest of his career in 2022 at 30.6%. In 2023, he had a 24.3 CSW%, the lowest since 2018.

This has caused a 13% strikeout percentage fall between 2022 and 2023, which is not a good sign to see out of a $27 million-a-year pitcher. His strikeout numbers are not the only thing that is concerning this year. His walk percentage has doubled from 2022 to 2023 from a 7.3% to a 14.8%.

Additionally, he’s getting barrelled up on more and is giving up home runs more often than he ever has in his career. In 2022, Rodon gave up 12 home runs in 172 innings pitched; In 2023, he gave up eight in 27 total innings pitched. As for the rest of batted balls against Rodon, his barrel rate hit double digits for the first time in his career, he has almost a 45% hard-hit rate and under a 4% soft-contact rate, which is very bad for any pitcher, especially in high leverage situations. His command is also documented to have dipped according to Eno Sarris’s location+, which has him at a 95. This partially explains his struggles despite keeping a consistent velocity and spin.

A lot of these numbers are percentages, which are hard to judge in the span of only 27 innings, but it is important to note the drastic regression Rodon has had in only six starts. These numbers aren’t catastrophic, but they are not what you want to see if you have Rodon for $135 million for another five years.

The future

Mistake or not, Rodon will be with the Yankees for the foreseeable future, and with the implosion of Luis Severino, inconsistency of Clarke Schmidt, and regression of Nestor Cortes Jr., he is a needed piece in the Yankees rotation.

As the Yankees look to 2024, a 1-2 punch of Cole and Rodon is much needed in a team that lacks production and has depleted a lot of their arms via trades, and has regression and injury issues in their rotation and bullpen. There is hope that with Rodon’s velocity and movement still consistent that the injury issues aren’t severe, and with this season as a losing season for the Yankees, his bad numbers this year isn’t the end of the world.

What is important is Rodon being able to command the strike zone for the rest of the year or the beginning of 2024. 

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