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Grayson Rodriguez’s fastball command is the key to the Orioles rotation’s full potential

The pressure on Rodriguez is reduced with Burnes and Bradish as the 1-2 in the rotation

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Day 15 AD (After David Rubenstein), and the feeling that anything is possible is still pervasive throughout Birdland. Even if the folks at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are none too swayed by the biggest offseason move in the American League, Orioles fans believe know that the addition of Corbin Burnes moves the needle in a big way. For as long as the Orioles have called Camden Yards home, this franchise has faced a pitching deficit—particularly in the starting rotation. The arrival of Burnes, as well as the health of John Means, brings the Orioles into the 2024 season with their rotation as a definitive strength for the first time… well, in my lifetime.

That being said, this rotation is not like that of the defending champion Rangers. Even with future Hall of Famers Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom on the mend, Texas’ rotation is still full of veterans who are either on the tail end of their primes or their best days are behind them. Much like the rest of the Orioles roster, their rotation has a certain youthful exuberance. Kyle Bradish, fresh off a top 5 Cy Young finish, comes into 2024 at only 27. Dean Kremer enters his fifth major league campaign having just turned 28 last month. Even Burnes, with his six years of major league experience, is still only 29.

With youth comes upside, the eternal promise that the best of these pitchers is still on the horizon. As good as Bradish was the last season and a half, and as good as Burnes has been his entire career, Grayson Rodriguez is undoubtedly the Orioles starter that best embodies the idea of upside.

If you followed along throughout Grayson’s rookie season, you know that it was equal parts tragedy as triumph. I detailed in his season review the pain of his first few months, his dominance after a July recall from Triple-A, and his implosion in his one playoff start. Despite the up-and-down nature of his rookie year, all the promise that made Grayson the top pitching prospect in all of baseball clearly showed through.

It is that promise, the perception that there’s still an abundance of untapped potential with Rodriguez, that makes him the X-Factor of this Orioles rotation. Even as the presumptive third starter in the rotation behind Bradish and Burnes, Rodriguez is the one capable of elevating this staff to new heights.

If Rodriguez’s development in 2024 resembles his up-and-down nature from 2023, this Orioles rotation should resemble the one the Nationals had when the won the World Series in 2019. Bradish and Burnes represent the Orioles’ own Strasburg and Scherzer, while Rodriguez would occupy the Patrick Corbin role. And that’s not a slight to Grayson, as Corbin put up a 3.25 ERA with 200+ IP and 200+ Ks in 2019. However, he was clearly the third best member of the rotation and his inconsistency showed through in his boom or bust playoff appearances.

However, if Rodriguez’s upward trajectory gets on the same trend we’ve seen from the O’s as a franchise these last two years, this rotation has the making of the new age Palmer, McNally and Cuellar. The next question then becomes, what does Grayson need to do to start unlocking that potential in his first full big league season? The first step in the progression comes with improved fastball command.

Much of the discourse around Grayson’s training this offseason has been around how he plans to better utilize his fastball in 2024. The Baltimore Banner wrote in January how Grayson went back and revisited the starts in 2023 where his fastball was dominant… and the ones where it got hit around a bunch. After all, in his virtuoso performance against the Rays he threw his four-seamer 69% of the time, pounding the zone against Tampa and using it to carefully set up his offspeed offerings. The counterpoint to that standout fastball usage is his struggles against the Rangers in the playoffs. In the Game 2 loss, he threw 75% fastballs and the Rangers teed off on them like he was throwing BP instead of pitching in a playoff game.

Rodriguez’ pitching style is similar to players like Gerrit Cole and Zac Gallen—the pitchers who led MLB in Run Value from their four-seamers. Rodriguez is going to gas up hitters about 50% of the time, using his 97+ mph heater to set up his plus changeup and two breaking balls. That velocity and his tendency to try and locate the fastball at the top of the zone create some similarities to how Félix Bautista likes to use his four-seamer.

The difference between the two comes in how their fastballs move and their ability to command their primary offering at the bottom of the zone. Bautista’s fastball’s movement is rare in that it has relatively little horizontal movement and is thrown so hard that it minimizes the natural drop due to gravity—giving the illusion that it’s actually rising. Rodriguez, on the other hand, features more side-to-side break. His 11.4 inches of horizontal break means Rodriguez’s four-seamer often has similar movement to Bradish’s sinker.

This type of movement means that sometimes Grayson runs his fastball in on the hands of right-handed hitters or away from lefties—but it also means that sometimes his fastball runs back over the middle and catches too much of the plate. These misses can be compounded by his tendency to pitch up in the zone. It’s a lot easier to drive a 100 mph fastball a long way when the pitcher leaves it up instead of down at the batter’s knees.

We’ll see a whole new evolution of Grayson if he can become more comfortable attacking both the top and bottom of the zone with his fastball. The second-year right-hander has hinted at adding a two-seamer to his arsenal this offseason, which should only help the big Texan diversify his pitching approach and attack down more. Two-seamers have more natural sink than a four-seam fastball—movement that should only be accentuated by the natural run of Rodriguez’s fastball.

It’s also worth noting that Bradish went from throwing 44% four-seamers and 4% sinkers as a rookie to around 20% for each pitch in his breakout season last year. Don’t expect such a dramatic shift in this case, but even throwing a two-seamer 5-10% of the time could be enough to keep opposing hitters from sitting on the high heat.

Grayson already uses his domineering fastball to set up his screwball-like changeup, as well as his curveball and slider. However, he can get into trouble when batters can sit on pitches in the upper third of the zone and ignore the offspeed offerings he tends to throw in the bottom third. If his fastball command reaches the point that hitters sitting on the fastball have to cover the whole plate, changeups running down and away from lefties and curveballs diving out of the zone will be that much more affective.

Rodriguez has all the things you could want if you were designing the perfect right-hander in a lab. He has consistently great velocity, great spin rate that creates excellent movement, and top notch extension to hide that movement from batters until it’s too late. However, the success of his approach to pitching is almost entirely built on being more affective with his fastball. If in 2024 he can find the control he needs, while mixing in some different looks with a two-seamer, Grayson takes this already excellent rotation to the peak of the American League.