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Sox hop: One little leap helped turn Carlos Rodon around

White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon looked like a future ace by the end of 2015. He just needed to be pointed in the right direction -- literally. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For Chicago White Sox starter Carlos Rodon, the turning point of the 2015 season came after a talk with pitching coach Don Cooper and a simple crow hop.

The first three and a half months of Rodon’s career were a mix of wildness and brilliance. But the former gripped him in late July, with a four-start stretch in which he allowed 19 runs in 18 1/3 innings. Rodon’s command was all over the place.

It was around this time that Cooper got Rodon to do a crow hop during a long-toss session. Cooper wasn’t so much concerned about the hop itself, but about the arm extension Rodon was able to get from it, which Cooper called "the ride to the plate." It literally got Rodon pointed in the right direction.

"It was just a matter of getting on top and driving the ball to the catcher," the 23-year-old southpaw said Monday. "It made everything better. Everything was on the same plane and the same point of release. Every pitch looked similar out of my hand, whether it was a fastball, changeup or slider."

The difference it made was extraordinary. Rodon entered an Aug. 11 start against the Angels with a 5.00 ERA. After putting the first two guys on, he struck out Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, the first with his put-away slider ("a killer pitch," Cooper said), the second with a nasty slurve that curled in at Pujols' feet. Rodon escaped that frame with no damage and finished with seven scoreless innings and 11 strikeouts.

That began the season-ending eight-start run in which Rodon went 5-2 with a 1.81 ERA and allowed two runs or fewer seven times. That included three sets of starts in which he faced the same opponent back-to-back (the Angels, Mariners and Indians). In the first matchup against each of those teams, he allowed two earned runs in 21 innings (0.86 ERA). In the second, the hitters caught up, but not much -- he allowed five earned runs in 21 2/3 innings (a 2.08 ERA).

Rodon entered this spring training 139 1/3 innings into his major league career. And he’s still very much a work in progress.

"I’m just more comfortable knowing what the process is, what I’m going to be going through," said Rodon, against whom opponents are hitting .130 in his seven scoreless innings this spring.

What he went through was tough, but eventually it all came together. Rodon was a bit overwhelmed in his first start against the Yankees on July 31, in which he allowed a season-high eight runs, but in his final start of the season he went into Yankee Stadium and allowed just two runs in six innings, notching his ninth win. That left a good feeling heading into the offseason.

Now, the focus is on refining and improving.

"We gotta pick up where we left off," Cooper said. "You don’t just snap your fingers and everything’s there."

Cooper has a long list of points of emphasis, chief among them fastball command up and down in the zone and breaking ball command to both sides of the plate. Even when the going was good in that eight-start run, Rodon still walked 3.5 per nine innings.

As part of his instruction, Rodon was told not to throw a slider in his last start. He got through four scoreless innings with no walks without it. Rodon is also trying to refine his changeup. He’s wowed by how easy Chris Sale makes it look, but it’s not as easy for Rodon ("mine’s not even close," he said with a laugh as he compared his changeup to the four-time All-Star's). In his first spring start, Rodon threw three of 14 for strikes and only got one swing-and-miss. Things went much better the second time around.

"I have the feel for it now. Now it’s just about getting it over for strikes," Rodon said. "It’s over the plate, but it’s down. They’ll just take it. Now it’s about committing to the pitch and trusting the pitch."

If Rodon can get these things down, his future should be bright. Remember, he was the No. 3 overall pick in the MLB draft just two years ago.

"His ceiling will hinge on his strike-throwing," said one major league scout. “With it, he can be a near top-of-the-rotation pitcher."

Rodon isn’t necessarily worried about his position in the rotation, so much as he is his position on the mound.

"It’s a little challenge, but it makes it fun, knowing what it takes to succeed and pitch in this league," Rodon said. "It all about getting right to the plate. That’s what works for me."