There’s good reason MLB managers are quicker to the hook when starting pitchers are facing opposing hitters for the third time. But the White Sox’ Carlos Rodon has been an exception, as successful the third time through the order as the first two.
Despite arm fatigue that will force him to miss a start and five-inning starts his last two times out, Rodon has allowed only a .547 OPS his third time through the order. That’s far below the overall MLB OPS of .725.
It also fits in nicely with Rodon’s OPS allowed of .557 the first time around and .611 the second. That’s stingy enough to lead to his 2.41 earned-run average that leads Sox starters. At 119-2/3 innings, he’s 17-1/3 innings shy of the inning-per-team-game standard to qualify for the ERA leaders. But Rodon’s ERA is lower than the AL-leading 2.60 by the Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray.
The low OPS the third time through is well outside MLB norms. So far in 2021, starting pitchers have yielded a .703 OPS the first time through, .744 the second time around and .777 the third time.
That’s a pattern of long standing. In the expansion era that started in 1961, OPSes always have been higher when facing a lineup the third time vs. the first time around.
Only three times in 61 seasons has the OPS been higher the second time than the third: In 1974 (.679 first time, then .696, .694); 1989 (.685, .713, .709); and 2020’s 60-game anomaly (.717, .765, .753). Those came in 1974, when a first-time .679 OPS jumped to .696 the second time then tailed off slightly
The normal pattern is an increase in OPS each time through the order.
Rodon isn’t the only Sox starter outside the pattern in 2021. For Lucas Giolito (.662, .746, .618), Lance Lynn (.420, .733, .722) and Dylan Cease (.632, .723, .635), the second time through has been the danger zone. Dallas Keuchel (.777, .798, .855) shows the big third-time jump.
The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks (.902, .654, .920) has struggled at the start, taken command in the middle then needed help the third time. The second time has been a problem for Adbert Alzolay (.652, .887, .781), while Alec Mills (.604, .751, 1.018) and Zach Davies (.725, .796, 1.158) have third-time blues.
For MLB, the third-time effect has increased in the 2000s. The difference between the first and third time OPSes was 53 points in the decade starting in 1961, 37 starting in ’71, 47 starting in ’81, 56 starting in ’91, 64 starting in 2001 and 63 starting in ’11.
Among possible reasons is that starters today deal with pitch counts. Managers have bullpens deeper in hard throwers. The combo leads to shorter starts and starters don’t worry so much about hitting a fatigue point earlier than starters of yore.
Regardless of reason, there’s a wide gap. You can’t blame a manager for casting a wary eye when his starter sees the top of the lineup for the third time.