RALEIGH, N.C.—Anyone who has seen Carlos Rodon pitch will tell you the first thing that stands out about the southpaw—perhaps other than his blazing fastball—is his fierce competitiveness on the mound.
After putting on roughly 20 pounds of muscle over the course of six months at North Carolina State, Rodon transformed himself from a very promising but inconsistent pitcher into one that might have been the top overall pick in this year’s draft had he been eligible. That transformation made Rodon the winner of Baseball America’s 2012 Freshman of the Year Award.
“His demeanor and the way he goes about his business on the mound reminds me a lot of Bob Gibson,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “He’s got two plus pitches in the fastball and slider, but the biggest thing that sells you about Rodon is his competitiveness. This is a guy that was diving head-first to beat out an infield single during fall practices.
“But, he already had a great feel for pitching before he set foot on campus. The main thing was just gaining consistency, and he put an unbelievable amount of time in getting stronger in the fall. I mean, his legs are like tree trunks.”
Rodon earned first-team All-America honors by going 9-0, 1.57 with 135 strikeouts and 41 walks in 115 innings. He was also named the Atlantic Coastal Conference’s pitcher of the year and freshman of the year after leading the Wolfpack to a super regional and a 43-20 overall record.
The summer prior to his freshman year, Rodon jumped around with various scout teams and went down to the wire negotiating with the Brewers, who selected him in the 16th round of the draft. The Holly Springs, N.C., native was viewed by scouts as a fourth-round talent in a very strong draft class, but he fell in part due to a strong commitment to N.C. State.
“We did make a commitment to try to sign Carlos, but in the end we finished a little ways off and school was his option,” Brewers scouting director Bruce Seid said.
“Rodon was very inconsistent last year as he was plagued by injury,” an American League scout said. “His body has always been strong and durable. I think more than anything, just getting healthy has allowed him to pitch with his best stuff consistently. His delivery is upright, but the ball jumps out of his hand. He can pitch to both sides of the plate and has makings of a plus breaking ball.”
The 6-foot-3, 234-pounder was one of the headliners of the Wolfpack’s fourth-ranked recruiting class alongside catcher Brett Austin and third baseman Trea Turner, who led the nation with 57 stolen bases. While Avent admitted he and his coaching staff were “a little shocked” to see Rodon make it to campus, they were even more surprised by how quickly he developed from when he signed his letter of intent through fall practices. Thanks to a rigorous strength and conditioning regimen, Rodon’s fastball velocity jumped from 88-92 mph in high school to hitting 96-97 during intrasquad scrimmages. This spring, he regularly sat between 92-95 and even hit 99 a handful of times.
“A few weeks ago, I looked at some pictures of me from high school and couldn’t believe how big of a difference (the strength and conditioning program) made,” Rodon said. “I give it all the credit in the world (for the jump in velocity).”
While the newfound velocity played a major role in Rodon’s success, he isn’t just a power pitcher. He holds his fastball velocity deep into games and pounds the zone with it to get ahead of hitters. But he also subtracts from the pitch and throws an 88-91 mph cutter as well as a developing split-change when hitters try to jump ahead of the fastball. Rodon led the ACC by limiting opposing hitters to just a .176 batting average.
“I’ve seen guys before that threw hard and still got hit pretty well,” Avent said. “Carlos starts out with so much velocity and can dial it up late whenever he needs to, but he really starts to pitch in the later innings. He generates so much momentum from his competitiveness, but has that internal ability to calm himself down when he needs to and force hitters to make weak contact.”
Although Rodon went undefeated, one thing slowed him down at the end of the spring: Mother Nature.
In an elimination game in the super regionals at Florida, lightning struck as N.C. State led 1-0 in the middle of the third inning and Rodon on the mound. After a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay, Rodon was lifted from the game after throwing just 40 pitches. The Wolfpack traded blows with the top-seeded Gators, but would eventually lose the game 9-8 in 10 innings.
Needless to say, that was a disappointing way for the season to end for the Wolfpack and Rodon. But the lefthander said he learned how to cope with disappointment and frustration during his freshman year, a key part of his maturation process.
“I can get a little too amped up at times,” he said. “When I cross the white line, it’s my mound and my field and I’m going to protect it. It’s a sense of pride. But if there’s one thing this game does teach you, it’s humility. I’m trying to become more of a quiet assassin, I guess.”