For the high Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds, it was a stunning run of outstanding pitching to start the year. They won their first five games at Wilmington last Tuesday through Saturday, allowing just eight runs total.
And Aberdeen’s starting pitchers - led by national top 100 prospect Grayson Rodriguez - allowed just one run over 23 innings during the 5-0 start. Rodriguez was the IronBirds’ opening night starter and returned for Sunday’s game, allowing one run over 3 1/3 innings, but the IronBirds lost 6-5.
They will still take a strong 5-1 start and first-place standing in their first season as a full-season minor league club.
When they take the field tonight at Hudson Valley, they will look for more solid pitching and more wins. Aberdeen leads the 12-team High-A East with a 2.04 team ERA, allowing 37 hits in 53 innings with 10 walks, 52 strikeouts, a WHIP of 0.89 and a .192 batting average against.
Through six games, the IronBirds’ starting rotation has an ERA of 0.68. Over 26 1/3 innings, the group has allowed 17 hits and two runs with five walks and 26 strikeouts.
That rotation features three top 30 O’s prospects and joins Double-A Bowie as the only O’s farm clubs right now to feature three. There is Rodriguez, ranked as the O’s No. 2 prospect behind Adley Rutschman. In the national top 100, he is No. 18 on Baseball America and No. 22 via MLBPipeline.com. Lefty Drew Rom, 21, is rated as the O’s No. 26 by Baseball America and No. 27 on MLBPipeline.com. And righty Garrett Stallings, 23, acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the José Iglesias deal, is ranked No. 28 by both outlets.
The rotation also features righty Kyle Brnovich, acquired also from the Angels in the Dylan Bundy deal of Dec. 4, 2019, and right-hander Blaine Knight, added from the University of Arkansas in round three of the 2018 draft.
Rodriguez, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Orioles, has allowed one run and five hits in 7 1/3 innings in his two outings. He walked four and fanned 12 against Wilmington.
When Rodriguez last pitched on the farm, for low Single-A Delmarva in 2019, he went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA and his manager was Kyle Moore. Moore is also his manager this season with Aberdeen. He has seen the top end of Rodriguez’s velocity tick up a bit, as the right-hander hit 99 mph several times in the Wilmington series.
Moore on Rodriguez: “Aside from him being older and a little more mature, he’s very similar to the same guy. He’s still got that explosive fastball. He’s still got that plus off-speed stuff and really spins the breaking ball. You know, (he’s) working on really commanding the slider, which moves great. Biggest thing for Grayson is just getting out there and back in games. I know he went to the alternate site last year, but there is no replicating a real game.
“I think he’s an ultra-competitor, which is super exciting because all the great ones are. These games will bring out the best in Grayson. That is what I saw these first two outings, and I have no doubts I’ll continue to see that.”
I asked Moore what he wants to see from Rodriguez this year to take his stellar pitching to an ever higher level.
“Well, his fastball velocity is super exciting,” Moore said. “When a guy throws as hard as he does with the command that he has, it is just awesome. When you get a power righty like that, that can run the ball up there at 98 (mph), I mean, good hitters swing fast. The big league hitters, they’ll light up some guys at 93 and 94. But command at 98 doesn’t get hit hard a lot, especially when you have off-speed stuff. I’m excited about that.
“Not just to be a huge velocity guy. But when you have a guy like Grayson and he has the body and the philosophy and the power, that is what it is supposed to look like.”
Stallings started the second game for Aberdeen and allowed six hits and one run over five innings with no walks and four strikeouts.
Moore on Stallings: “He’s a college (drafted) pitcher from the University of Tennessee. He’s got a good fastball and really attacks the zone. He’s got a plus slider and he landed every slider he threw the first outing. That was really impressive. He threw, like, 17 of 17 for strikes. And got a lot of swing and misses on it. You automatically go, ‘Wow, he can really spin it.’ He can sink the ball at times, and he also has a four-seamer. He moves the ball around a lot, with some good velocity (around 92, 93 mph) and he’s got a plus-plus slider. As a college guy, he is closer to ready than most.”
Brnovich pitched third for Delmarva in the opening series. He threw five scoreless innings on one hit with no walks and six strikeouts.
Moore on Brnovich: “He is a high-command guy. He went to Elon. He’s got a plus breaking ball, and it’s not a traditional spin. So it’s going to be a little funky and it really gave Wilmington some trouble. Also he can throw that breaking ball in any count and he moves the fastball around really well (at around 92 mph). He can really command the top and the bottom of the zone. Loved his command. Our starters have really commanded the ball, and he certainly did that the first time out.”
Moore also managed Rom during the 2019 season with Delmarva. Rom then went 6-3 with a 2.93 ERA and 11.5 strikeout rate. In his opening start this year for the IronBirds, he threw five scoreless innings on two hits with no walks and two strikeouts.
Moore on Rom: “I love Rom. I saw him pitch all season in 2019. A super-athletic lefty with a bunch of different pitches and commands all of them. So when you are standing there, you have no idea what arm slot he’s coming out of, and he’s got five pitches and at some point of the game he threw them all for strikes. Really nasty split-finger. So that is his real nasty swing-and-miss thing. His velocity is 92, 94 (mph). He’s got sneaky velocity. You think he’s a normal lefty and you go back to the dugout saying, ‘That thing really jumped on me.’ Really like Rom’s pitchability. He’s young, a high school kid from Kentucky. But he has outstanding feel for his pitches for a young kid.”
Moore also managed Knight when he got off to a great start in 2019, but later that season, he really struggled. He went 3-0 with an ERA of 0.68 in five starts for the Shorebirds that season. But when he moved up to high Single-A Frederick, he was 1-12 with a 6.13 ERA in 18 games. So he is back at high A-ball to begin the 2021 campaign.
Moore on Knight: “He pitched really well for us in ‘19 at Delmarva and came up to Frederick and struggled. I didn’t see a lot of what happened there, but with the level of talent increasing, there’s a little more pressure to execute off-speed stuff and also really command the zone. I think he maybe struggled with a that a little, but first time with us (this year) he didn’t struggle with that.
“He threw all his sliders well and moved his fastball around well. Blaine has a plus slider. We knew that when we got him from Arkansas, where he pitched in the College World Series. He can throw his slider in any count - 3-2, bases loaded, he can throw a plus slider. When he lands that, everything changes. His fastball can get to 94, 95 (mph) as well. I just think staying on line and filling up the strike zone is key for him. That can help him even out his pitch usage to a place where he is unpredictable.”
Among Aberdeen’s collection of interesting position players are Joey Ortiz, Adam Hall and Toby Welk in the infield, with Zach Watson, Kyle Stowers and Johnny Rizer in the outfield. Maverick Handley and Cody Roberts have been catching that stellar staff.
After Monday’s off-day, Aberdeen is expected to stay in turn with its rotation, which would mean that Stallings starts tonight, followed by Brnovich, Rom, Knight and Rodriguez.
Soon I’ll have more with Moore about the IronBirds, who play their home opener at Ripken Stadium on May 18 versus Wilmington.