At Single-A Delmarva, the Shorebirds’ amazing start has been the result of many factors, but strong starting pitching has ranked right up there. One pitcher who got off to a fast start was right-hander Blaine Knight and he already has been promoted to Single-A Frederick. But others remain with the team, including the club’s 2018 top draft pick.
And that is 19-year-old right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, who is 5-0 with a 1.45 ERA through six starts. Knight left after going 3-0 with an ERA of 0.68 in five starts. But Knight was drafted out of college, turns 23 in June and pitched in big-time games at the University of Arkansas, including in the College World Series. Rodriguez was drafted No. 11 overall out of a Texas high school.
So far, Rodriguez has lived up to the high expectations surrounding any player taken that high in the draft. He went five innings to get his latest win on Wednesday afternoon. For the season, he has pitched 31 innings, allowing 18 hits with nine walks, 47 strikeouts, a .165 average against and WHIP of 0.87.
When I spoke this week with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, he said the club is thrilled with what Rodriguez is doing. But he also indicated that the organization is in no rush to promote the right-hander.
“It is, no doubt, different for a high school player, and even for a first-round pick like Grayson was,” Elias said. “For the high schooler to break spring and go right into a full-season league in his first full season is a huge challenge and a huge ask. So just by virtue of his being there right now, he’s already moving faster than your normal high school pick. Even if you look at other high school pitchers in his draft class, many did not debut in a full-season league right out of spring training. It’s great to see what he is doing. But we need to be very careful with him, and we’re in no hurry to move him out of there. He’s got a lot to learn at 19 playing in that league.”
So the Orioles might keep him in the South Atlantic League all season?
“We’ll see what happens. I’m not saying that will be the outcome, but it would certainly be a success for him to log a full season there,” Elias said. “Thinking back on some other high high school pitcher draft picks that I’ve been a part of, we kept Lance McCullers (taken No. 41 overall in 2012 by the Astros) in A-ball in the Midwest League all year in 2013. And then it was the following year we started to hop up the chain a bit.
“But asking a 19-year-old kid, whether it’s a pitcher or a position player, to spend all year at a full-season level right after the draft is a big ask.”
The Orioles recently skipped Rodriguez a turn under a plan to limit his season-long innings total, and we’ll likely see that again.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a challenge,” Elias said. “These guys don’t throw that many innings in high school. They may throw 50 or 60 in high school and then they might throw another 20 in pro ball after they sign. They finish the year with no more than 80-85 innings under their belt. Then they are thrust into a full-season league where, if you make every start, you’ll throw well over 100 innings. So we need to find ways to manage that and it’s about picking sensible spots to skip a start or push a start back. Have some shorter outings. We want him to play all year and not have to shut him down in July or August because we moved too fast on innings.”
I asked Elias in general terms what the Orioles look at and consider when deciding when it’s the right time to promote a minor league player.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be a case-by-case basis on when is the right time looking at the player and his history,” he said. “But broadly speaking, we want guys to play at what we call age-appropriate levels. So that their success or failure tells us something, and it’s not because they are playing against players way too old or too young for them. And then we want our guys to be slightly challenged.
“In Blaine’s case, he had a prodigious college career in the SEC, the most difficult conference. So we knew that A-ball Delmarva probably wasn’t going to be a huge challenge for him, but it was essentially his pro debut. We wanted him to get his feet wet and have a grounding of success, and he did that. And so, at the earliest opportunity, we sent him up to Frederick.”
And, as with everything the club does under Elias and vice president and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal, data and analytics are part of the decision-making process when promoting players on the farm.
“We look at the performance of the player at each level and the player’s age at each level,” Elias said. “You can eyeball it or you can do that in more systemic way. Sig is developing something like that here. It’s how we do statistical analysis across the board. Whether it’s for the draft or a pro player, we try to have projections that inform us what he might do or is likely to do at the next level. It’s never an exact outcome and you are trying to play the odds, but it helps to anchor your decision to those odds.”