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Nerding out with some data on Grayson’s big day

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Orioles rookie was cookin’ with gas in Arlington yesterday.

Baltimore Orioles v Texas Rangers
I could get used to this sight.
Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

It might have been the biggest day of young Grayson Rodriguez’s life. On Tuesday afternoon, just after getting called up by the Baltimore Orioles to make his major league debut, Rodriguez telephoned his mother to tell her the news. According to Temple Rodriguez herself, “I screamed like there had been a murder in Nacogdoches.” Twenty-four or so hours later, the Rodriguez family plus a large rooting section from his hometown of Nacogdoches had made the 175-mile drive to the Ballpark at Arlington to see Grayson pitch.

It wasn’t a perfect debut, but it was a strong one. Amidst all the emotions of the moment (none cuter than this postgame father-son hug), the 23-year-old right hander struggled to keep things under control—especially in the first inning. Texas went 2-for-5, walked once, and drove in two runs against him. “Really couldn’t feel the baseball,” said Grayson, confessing that he’d felt “like I was on an island.” (Um, imagine what that must feel like, alone on a pitcher’s mound in front of an audience of 40,000, with no feel for the baseball.)

But Grayson settled in nicely after that, holding Texas to a 2-for-14 line from the second inning through the fifth. After throwing 30 pitches in the first inning, Rodriguez got through the next four on just 53 while racking up the first five strikeouts of his career. Significantly, he reversed this spring’s trend of struggling as he got deeper into games. Instead, on Wednesday he got stronger and stronger.

All this could be seen very clearly using the good old eye test. Shall we delve a little deeper, then?

The very first hitter of Rodriguez’s MLB career was former Silver Slugger and All-Star Marcus Semien. Again Semien, G-Rod was pumping in his heater at 97-98 mph but he couldn’t land the slider to save his life. The leadoff man ended up taking a free base. The next man up, Corey Seager reached on a fielder’s choice, and against him too, G-Rod struggled with commanding his offspeed stuff, missing well wide of the strike zone with two changeups. Seager moved to second on a wild pitch before Nathaniel Lowe lined a get-me-over changeup into Jorge Mateo’s glove at 99 mph. Then, Adolis García got two breaking balls in the dirt, but he timed up a fastball for a two-out double to right to score Lowe. It was 98 mph but right smack down the middle. García scored to make it 2-0 on Josh Jung’s single to left. Rodriguez threw Jung two changeups in a row and he timed up the second.

That inning, Rodriguez threw 30 pitches, only half of which were strikes. He had some of his best velocity, but not much spin. Four of his five fastest heaters on the day were thrown in the first inning, all 97.8 mph and above. But in RPM terms, three of Rodriguez’s worst five changeups were thrown that inning, too. For this reason, in part, the Rangers were not fooled by G-Rod: four of six of the hardest-hit balls they had off him all day were hit in the first inning, all with exit velocities of 94 or more.

After that, however, Rodriguez was [fire emoji, gas can emoji, sick face emoji]. He needed just 11 pitches in a 1-2-3 second and allowed just a hit apiece in the third and fourth innings.

Improved control was a major factor. He threw nine of 11 pitches for strikes in the second, and in truth, the two balls were arguably strikes. In the third, he threw 11 pitches, eight for strikes (and again, it should have been nine). He threw 17 pitches in the fourth, a few more close no-calls inflating his pitch count again. Same deal in the fifth: he threw nine pitches, theee of which were balls, and again there were two more close calls he didn’t get.

After zero strikeouts in the first, he racked up five in his last four innings. Sequencing mattered here: for instance, he got Corey Seager on this fastball-changeup-sequence in the bottom of the fifth. Not just speed, he changed location: outside-inside-outside. You can do this when you can pick your spots.

Also in good news, as far as velocity goes, it was normal (averaging 96.5, topping out at 98.2 mph), which is to say, it was great.

Overall, here are my takeaways after watching Grayson’s start a second time:

1. His velocity trended slightly down over the game, but still averaged around 95 mph in the fifth inning. And this could be a matter of control more than fatigue, given how his accuracy didn’t suffer. (DeGrom, for instance, got really wild around the fifth inning. Not that I’m jealous of Texas’s ace or anything.)

2. In fact, Rodriguez’s control was way better than I’d thought initially. His very green status basically meant that he got none of the close calls today. And while he struggled to land his offspeed stuff early on, eventually these pitches became an important weapon for him. Per Statcast, he used his four-seam fastball 49% of the time, his slider 23%, changeup 17%, curveball 6% and cutter 5%, a surprisingly diversified arsenal for a flame-thrower in his first game ever.

3. It’s too soon to say, but still, the control and concentration issues we thought we’d spotted in spring training, and which got him consigned to Triple-A Norfolk for Opening Day, did not appear to materialize in Arlington. Grayson Rodriguez is an emotional dude, but getting a grip on himself to make it through five innings was a wonderful sign.

Asked after the game whether G-Rod had earned a permanent spot in the rotation, Brandon Hyde answered, “We are not there yet.” As for freaking out over the big rookie and his searing stuff? Oh, we’re definitely there. Bring on the gas can next week!