On Saturday, the Cardinals decided to give a young, struggling starter a chance for his big league dream, because well, because that’s how deep into the pitching depth the Cardinals are forced to go at this point with injuries to Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Kwang Hyun-Kim. The two top prospects above him, Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore, haven’t really pitched well enough to be added to the 40 man, not to mention Liberatore is pitching for Team USA at the moment.
Whether or not he’ll be used as a starter is to be determined. The Cardinals have an off day tomorrow and Thursday, so they can use him in the bullpen to see if they want to use him in the rotation. And hell, they might very well need to use him in the rotation no matter his performance. But for now, he’s in the bullpen. He pitched yesterday, meant for more than one inning, but only being able to throw one inning.
If I had to describe Rondon’s appearance yesterday, I’d say that he looked pretty hittable but capable of some level of control. He seemed to throw the ball where he wanted it most of the time. The Reds managed to make contact off just about every pitch they swung at, but most of it was fairly well-located. The Reds swung at 12 pitches in Rondon’s inning. They made contact off 11 of them. The one they swung and miss at was a pitch in the dirt on 1-0, that despite my earlier claim above, was not really where he wanted it in the first place.
Seems safe to say he wasn’t trying to do that right? It was a glass half full/glass half empty kind of performance. There was a lot of loud contact, which include a couple foul balls, but also he can throw strikes! Which really says a lot about the state of the bullpen that “can throw strikes” is such a breath of fresh air, but well it is.
Angel Rondon was signed in January of 2016 out of the Dominican Republic. Here’s the strange thing. I can’t really find any evidence this was covered at the time. Which is not to say it wasn’t. But he was in between two more high profile signing periods from the Cards in the summers before and after he signed. The 2015 class seems to mostly be a bust, pending Alvaro Sejias figuring it out before the Cards give up on him. The 2016 class has some serious potential though, headlined by Johan Oviedo and Ivan Herrera. In the middle of these two classes was Angel Rondon signing with the Cards.
Now, I don’t exactly following international signing news that closely - a big class like the 2015 and 2016 classes (which was 13 signees) - yeah that comes across my desk, but then we don’t see these guys for years sometimes and when I see their name, I don’t exactly associate them as an international free agent, just a prospect. I didn’t know Herrera was signed the same time as Oviedo, for instance, and I do specifically remember Oviedo being a big deal at the time. But Rondon seemed to be under the radar whether or not this was extensively covered.
The 18-year-old stayed in the Dominican Republic and played in the DSL for his first professional season. He was excellent, pitching in 42 IP, some as a starter, some in relief. He struck out 27.2% of batters while walking just 7.1%. For whatever reason, he started 2017 in the same league, but was promoted after just two starts and 5.2 IP. They promoted him to Johnson City for one start, he allowed two home runs in 4 IP and then he spent the rest of the season down in the GCL. He had just a 20.4 K%, walked 8.5% of batters, and had a 3.45 FIP. A 19-year-old with a roughly average strikeout rate and average walk rate facing GCL competition is not making headlines.
Now 20-years-old, the Cardinals sent him into short season A ball, State College. He was good, but not in an interesting prospect way. In 5 starts and 19 innings, he didn’t strike out many (19%) and didn’t get groundballs (37.6%), but on the bright side, he didn’t walk many either (5.8%). It all added up to a perfectly respectable but unexciting 3.72 ERA and 4.17 FIP. And then they promoted him.
He had a nearly identical FIP in 10 starts in Low A, but something that will ring prospect bells. He struck out more (23.1%), didn’t see a huge jump in walks (6.9%) and got more groundballs (40.5%). His ERA and xFIP both improved. Now he’s a 20-year-old pitching pretty well in Low A. He’s a prospect officially. He started 2019 in High A, saw a rise in strikeouts (26.3%), a rise in walks (9.5%) and no change in groundball percentage. He was also at Palm Beach so his 2.20 ERA and 3.35 FIP were perhaps a touch misleading, at least it’s not as good of a pitching line as it seems given he was pitching in an offensive black hole.
But well, the Cardinals gave him just 8 starts before promoting him. There’s a very good reason for this, aside from confidence in him. His 40 man clock was ticking. He needed to be added by the December of 2020 or he was exposed to the Rule 5 draft. It wasn’t a given that he needed to be added, but the Cards would sure like to know if he needed to be added. And the only way to do that is to get him to the high minors as quickly as possible.
So they sent him into the fire at Springfield and, well he held his own. Every stat declined, but that’s to be expected. He struck out less but still a well above average amount (23.3%), and he managed to cut his walks to a close to respectable level (8.7%). While his 4.31 xFIP is not especially impressive, a 3.97 FIP and 3.21 ERA were enough to give him Minor League Pitcher of the Year. So looking into it a bit more deeply, he wasn’t as good as his ERA - but he was also 21-years-old this whole season.
And then the pandemic happened and he didn’t get a year of reps in AAA. He pitched well enough to get promoted to AAA last year. He would probably be struggling in a similar manner as he is currently. But with experience with possibly come improvement and well that might be why he’s a less exciting option than he could be, over a year after he was Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
In AAA this year, he has a 15.1 K% and 6.6 BB%. He needs to add at least 5 percentage points to that K rate and maybe we have something cooking. But it’s also only 23.2 IP and it’s his first exposure to AAA. There have been improvements already. In his first start against the vaunted Rays AAA team - definitely a rough team to debut against - he pitched 4.1 IP, allowed 3 home runs, and six earned runs while striking out just two. He allowed two home runs in his second start too, along with five earned runs.
In his last three starts, he has a 1.76 ERA with just one home run allowed and 3 earned runs. It’s by no means dominant - he has a 17.2 K% and 9.4 BB%, which comes out to a 4.01 FIP - but I’m guessing just home run allowed is a bit lucky and that’s a slightly rosier picture of his performance. Nonetheless, he has improved no matter how you look at it. And that, along with the general lack of other options, is why he’s at St. Louis.
Aligning his performance yesterday with his minor league numbers, things start to make sense. He wasn’t really missing bats in the minors, so it makes sense why he looked so hittable in the majors. He has also generally had reasonable walk rates. Except for his 4 IP start at Johnson City way back in 2017, his career high BB rate is 9.5% in his eight starts at Palm Beach, which is sadly significantly better than the Cards team BB% (which is an absolutely insane 11.7% - relievers are walking 14.6% of batters)
So for whatever else he does, Angel Rondon will improve the team’s control. Well at the least, he won’t make it worse. Only because the bar is making every other team look like they have prime Matt Carpenter patience and let’s be honest past his prime Matt Carpenter too. (By the way not worth a whole post, but Carpenter now has a 76 wRC+ with a .211 BABIP. Give him his rest of season projected .269 BABIP and he’s probably a solid bench bat?)
Let’s hope Angel Rondon finds a magical gear and helps the Cards starting pitching right now though, because they sure need it.