Before this crazy season kicked off and flipped everything we thought we knew about the Orioles on its head, one of the biggest concerns about the team was—what else?—starting pitching.
Fangraphs, for instance, predicted Baltimore would have the sixth-worst starting rotation in the game, and this didn’t sound all that crazy. Offseason additions Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin didn’t exactly scream, “We’re going all in this year!” Tyler Wells looked fringy, a long relief guy or maybe a fifth starter. Kyle Bradish had ended 2022 on a strong note, but who knew if he’d resemble the good version of himself or the bad?
About the only O’s pitcher Fangraphs did pick to have a better-than-average year was the rookie Grayson Rodriguez (predicted to go 8-8 with a 3.81 ERA and 9.35 K/9).
Well, it goes to show you: even people who do this for a living can be wrong sometimes. Orioles starters haven’t excelled, but they’ve certainly not been awful, either. And Grayson Rodriguez—well, unfortunately, from April-May he was arguably the worst pitcher on the team, even as his potential always flashed. In his first ten big-league starts, he put up a 7.35 ERA and a 1.743 WHIP, walked over four batters per game, and allowed harder contact than 99% of MLB pitchers.
Another thing we all got wrong about the Orioles this year was thinking that the talented Rodriguez would get a long leash to work out his issues. But nope: on May 26, the O’s sent the rookie down to Triple-A, just like they had unsentimentally done the month before with the veteran Irvin.
Rodriguez wouldn’t return to Baltimore until July, but when he did return, he did it in style. On July 17, he held the Dodgers to just one run over five innings, though he’d exit in the sixth with two runners on who’d later score. And on July 22, he threw 5 2⁄3 innings versus Tampa Bay and allowed just three hits and struck out six.
Those aren’t “wow” results in themselves, and yes, it’s only two starts since he’s been back. But what’s standing out this time around is how different Rodriguez’s stuff looks from how it did in May.
Here’s a 101 mph fastball with late movement against the Dodgers’ Will Smith:
Grayson Rodriguez, 101mph ⛽️⛽️ pic.twitter.com/LAnIYJWiG7— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 17, 2023
A filthy curveball with right-to-left action versus Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena:
This pitch from Grayson Rodriguez....— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) July 22, 2023
And 99 at the knees, a fastball both perfectly located and also featuring some of that same nasty right-to-left action he flashed on the curve. Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone would hit a pitch like this.
Pitches landing low and under the zone, where he wants them. Breaking balls that actually break. A fastball with the same velocity, but more horizontal movement? It’s clear that, during his time in Triple-A, Grayson Rodriguez did more than work on his concentration.
He’s confirmed as much, telling MASN that while in Norfolk, with help from Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey and Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson, he made one small but salient adjustment: “Really just looking at the catcher a little bit longer throughout the delivery [and] visualizing throwing the pitch there.” Simple as that.
Okay, there’s to obviously more to it than this: his velocity is up, plus there’s that new horizontal action in several of his pitches. A change in mechanics seems to be behind this.
Here’s G-Rod’s windup on April 23, against Detroit. Notice Rodriguez kind of flinging his body toward the plate, a little loose, even recklessly. The body appears to fly open before his arm can catch up.
Now here, a simpler, more compact, more controlled and more carefully timed motion. It’s a taller stance, a smaller step and leg-kick, and the parts are working all together.
Rodriguez has also tweaked his pitch mix since the return. We’re seeing fewer cutters (his hardest-hit pitch this year) and more changeups and curveballs.
And why not? The two are showing elevated spin rates, and a better shape, as the below graph shows. Notice, specifically, the little feet at the end of the blue line (curveball) and the green line (changeup). The pivot point is July 17, his first start back. (You can also check out the same chart for Vertical Break: same pattern.)
The takeaway is: in a month and a half, Rodriguez has managed not just to clean up his throwing motion and solidify his command, but also to add velocity to his heater and movement to all of his pitches, especially his breaking ones.
G-Rod will confirm: “I feel like a totally different pitcher.” And even though he allowed six runs against LA and Tampa Bay, the results have been plenty encouraging: among his weakest contact allowed all year and highest percentage of swings-and-misses. Remember, these outings came against two of the AL’s toughest opponents. Rodriguez will draw the short straw again in his next start this Friday, facing off against the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole and, it’s expected, a freshly activated Aaron Judge.
It won’t be a breeze. But if G-Rod keeps throwing stuff like this, well, I’m kind of feeling bad for whoever is facing him at the plate.