Even for a pitcher who looked to be on the cusp of his major league debut, it was stunning stretch of pitching. During a season when top O’s pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez went 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA, he pitched even better in six starts leading up to when he got hurt.
When the 23-year-old right-hander took the mound at Triple-A Norfolk’s Harbor Park on June 1 versus Jacksonville, a call to Baltimore seemed almost at hand. I was writing at the time that, in my humble opinion, Rodriguez was very ready to debut with the Orioles.
That night he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings but then walked off the mound and didn’t return. We would later learn he had suffered a Grade 2 right lat strain. He would not pitch again on the farm for three months. On Sept. 1 he returned with a rehab outing for High-A Aberdeen.
In those last six outings at Triple-A, counting the night he got hurt, his ERA was 0.79. Over 34 1/3 innings he gave up three earned runs on 16 hits with nine walks and 47 strikeouts. In four of the games he threw scoreless outings.
It was a stunning stretch of pitching, even for one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Rodriguez is No. 6 on Baseball America’s new listing of the top 100 prospects. When he talked with reporters ahead of his game return in that Aberdeen outing, he noted that his pitching and stats were eye-popping in May for Norfolk.
“I would say going back and watching tape and reflecting on outings in Norfolk the first two months, I mean, that’s hands down the best I’ve ever thrown a baseball in my life,” Rodriguez told reporters at Ripken Stadium.
As the Orioles and Birdland fans dream on Rodriguez as a possible big league ace hurler, the pitcher has had enough dominant outings already in his career to make that seem possible.
Buck Britton has managed Rodriguez at both Double-A in 2021 and Triple-A in 2022. He sees a pitcher ready for the next step: the Orioles rotation.
“I think Grayson is ready for anything,” Britton said in a recent interview. “We talk about being a competitor, and I don’t think there is a guy more competitive than this kid. Especially on the day he pitches. When he walks through those doors the day of his start, it’s an absolute monster. He goes out there and he is fearless.
“I don’t think there is anything too big for Grayson. He’s a confident kid and he’s got something to prove. He might have all the accolades, everybody talking about being the best right-handed pitcher in baseball, but he feels he has something to prove. When you go out there with a chip on your shoulder, watch out.”
And even if Rodriguez struggles with the Orioles - and even the very best do at some point - Britton sees a pitcher plenty mature enough to handle that.
“You talk about makeup, and I don’t think there will be things that faze him that turn into bigger things," Britton said. "I think he understands, even with how good his stuff is, guys hit him at times. You leave it in the middle of the plate and guys hit it. He just gets the ball, gets back on the mound and goes after the task at hand. I’m not worried one bit about that guy. The makeup is incredible.”
Taken No. 11 overall in the 2018 MLB Draft, Rodriguez was the Orioles' co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2019 and sole winner in 2021. He’s 25-9 with a 2.47 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 292 minor league innings.
Despite all his success, Britton thinks it was important for Rodriguez to get back on the mound on the farm late last year.
“First off, I think it was a huge sigh of relief, to get him back on the mound," Britton said. "You know, Grayson is a special talent. He wasn’t as sharp with his command when he came back, which was expected. But the velo was there, we saw the spin was there.
“But man, pre-injury, it was the best version of Grayson I’ve ever seen. And all I’ve ever seen is a good version of him. When he got hurt he was really throwing the ball well. I’m really excited to see this guy in spring training. He’s one of my favorite players in the organization.”
Rodriguez gets strong scouting grades across the board from Baseball America, which puts 70 grades on his fastball and slider, 60 on his changeup and 55 on his curveball. All are above average. He gets plus grades for his command at 65.
He even started using a cutter last season. It may have been something he tinkered with before, but it is now more part of his strong arsenal of pitches.
“And it’s become a really nice pitch for him," Britton said. "Just another weapon he can attack guys with.”