We’re now about 10 days into the season, which means it’s time for a round of “Who’s looking good out of the gate?” Today, I want to focus on three post-hype starters who piqued my interest in the last week: Carlos Rodón, Jeff Hoffman, and Justin Dunn. Obviously, these three have teased before, and given their track records, there’s good reason to be skeptical of them going forward. All three have good arms though, and I’m a sucker for a spring breakout. With that in mind, I’ve donned my yellow zigzagged shirt, taken a running start, and am ready to blast this metaphorical football.
I trust that a small sample warning isn’t really necessary here. We all know that we’re working with extremely limited data at this point in the year, and that the following content comes with an extra-large SSS warning label. I trust you to recognize the intent of this article, which is simply to highlight interesting starts from a few talented but oft-frustrating arms. I’m not declaring that they’re suddenly budding All-Stars; I’m not even arguing they belong on your fantasy team. If someone reads this and comments “Uh, it was one start,” I will, well, I won’t do anything, but someone else will down-vote you in the comments, and that will be embarrassing. Don’t do that.
With that out of the way:
Rodón’s run of bad luck in recent years is well-documented. He missed a couple of months in 2018 with a shoulder injury, then had to go under the knife for Tommy John early the following year. He returned to the mound last season, but only for a handful of innings, and he was unceremoniously non-tendered this past winter. Chicago invited him to camp anyway, and while he had a strong spring and won a job in the rotation, he didn’t have a ton of buzz heading into the season.
Then he started throwing 98 mph.
Through all of his maladies in recent years, Rodón’s velocity has held steady. He’s always had another gear when needed — he cracked triple-digits once back in 2016 — but generally sits either side of 93:
He looked like a new man Monday against the Mariners, averaging 95 on the fastball, while hitting 98 a couple times and 97 or better on a dozen occasions. The velocity gains carried over to his other offerings as well: his average slider was up nearly two ticks and reached 89 mph, a frightening prospect given how nasty it was before. Mariners hitters could only flail haplessly (admittedly a default state for half the lineup,) whiffing eight of the 13 times they tried to hit it.
It was a dominating performance. He struck out nine Seattleites while allowing two hits, three walks, and only two balls that left the bat above 90 mph. He coaxed 19 whiffs in 95 pitches, including nine on the heater. For fun, he also unveiled a new curve, a somewhat looping offering, but one that also managed to miss a bat. In Jake Fraley’s defense, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition either:
My sense is that Rodón’s career thus far has been considered a bit of a disappointment. Part of that comes with the territory when you’re the No. 3 overall pick, but there’s also been plenty of injury problems baked in there as well. I’m not going to predict that Rodóns performance on Monday was a harbinger of things to come. It’s safe to say, however, that this was among his most impressive big league outings, and that he’ll be a very exciting pitcher to follow over the summer if he can sustain this kind of velocity.
Back when I wrote about prospects for Baseball Prospectus, Hoffman’s was the toughest report I ever filed. I saw him once, a dominating early-season outing back in 2016. He sat in the mid-90s, touching 97 with two-bat missing secondaries, an adequate change, and pretty good control. He was right up there with Noah Syndergaard among the most promising Triple-A arms I’d seen, and yet it was tough to square the Role 70 talent in front of me with the likelihood that he’d likely never reach that ceiling in Colorado. With Coors Field in his future, the path ahead felt not just difficult but unfair, like sending Vonnegut to write for General Electric.
Hi ho. Hoffman predictably struggled in difficult circumstances, posting a 6.40 ERA and 5.58 FIP across 230 big league innings. The Rockies did everything they could to unlock his prodigious talents, which may have actually been part of the problem. Shuttling between Albuquerque and Coors, shuffling from the bullpen to the rotation, fiddling with his arsenal and arm action, tweaking something seemingly as often as he changed underwear, Hoffman never found his rhythm. He’s been a change of scenery candidate for a few years now, and after five years in purgatory, he’s found his way to Cincinnati’s pitching laboratory.
Naturally, he’s made some tweaks. Mechanically, it looks like he’s working with slightly longer arm action — he’d shortened his arm swing late in his Rockies tenure — and he’s got more of a glove throw with his front side. He’s mentioned wanting to adjust where he throws certain pitches, code for “I’m going to try throwing my four-seamer higher.” So far, so good.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that Hoffman brought his slider back. Even though it had been his best swing-and-miss pitch throughout his career, he shelved the slider last year, perhaps amidst concerns about how its relatively small break wasn’t playing well at Coors Field. Regardless, it’s back in his toolbox and it again looks like an out pitch. In his first outing last Sunday, he missed three bats with it on five swings (the other two were fouled off). Righties will have a tough time handling its late break:
On the day, he recorded six strikeouts while missing 13 bats in 77 pitches. He left after five innings, having allowed just three hits, one run, and zero free passes.
That last part will be crucial for him going forward: Hoffman’s velocity is down a tick from his prospect heyday but his stuff remains plenty good for mid-rotation work if he can throw quality strikes. Command has long been his bugaboo, and perhaps wildness will force him back into relief soon enough. For now though, he’s throwing the ball well and he’s in a setting where he’s much more likely to regain top form. I’ll be watching his next few starts with renewed interest.
Dunn’s report isn’t as exciting as the previous two. In Wednesday’s afternoon start against the White Sox, the 25-year-old periodically lost his feel for the strike zone, and allowed eight walks in 4.2 innings. He wasn’t hellaciously wild — he nibbled a lot and Nick Mahrley’s interpretive strike zone didn’t help — but obviously he needs to throw more strikes.
There were good signs though. Dunn’s velocity, which has fluctuated wildly throughout his career and sometimes from inning-to-inning, held steady at the high end of his velo band. He topped out at 95, and hit that number often throughout the outing. He also had a lot of bite on his slider, and while his two breaking balls don’t have as much separation as you’d like, he’s able to throw the curve a few ticks slower and it kept White Sox hitters off balance.
In recent years, Dunn has sometimes pitched with an 89-91 mph fastball and a lousy, cuttery-slider, which fueled concerns that he might not be a viable big leaguer. If he can sustain the stuff he showed on Wednesday though, he’ll have a place on a major league team. In the long run, I think he fits best in the bullpen, potentially as a multi-inning option. The Mariners have every chance to see if he can start though, and particularly after James Paxton’s injury, he’ll have a long leash.