Orioles prospect thinks he’s top pitcher in minors, and he wants to prove it each outing.

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Grayson Rodriguez, the Baltimore Orioles' 2018 first round draft pick, stands on the field during a baseball game between the Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It’s been quite a while since anyone doubted Grayson Rodriguez, long considered a foundational piece of the Orioles’ rebuild and now regarded by many — himself included — as the top pitching prospect in the minors.

Still, years later, he remembers the questions about whether the 11th overall pick was too high for the Orioles to take him in the 2018 draft, or whether someone else might have been better at that spot, or if he would ever be nearly as good as he’s been so far.

He’s answered them all — and then some. And even the years-old doubt, long ago buried by an almost faultless minor league career, have fueled an ascent that puts Rodriguez at quite a high station as he builds toward his major league debut.

“I put myself as the best pitcher in the minor leagues,” Rodriguez said after striking out eight in five scoreless innings Wednesday for Double-A Bowie against Richmond. “Now, what other people think, that’s up to them. … But for me, I’ve got to go out and prove that each time. I can’t take anything — I can’t take it easy or anything like that and just go out and expect the results. Really, nobody has that title.

“Everybody’s working to go to the big leagues, and you’ve just got to take care of what you can control.”

In Wednesday’s simmering matinee at Bowie, Rodriguez mostly cruised. He was admittedly without the premium velocity that has been his trademark this season, sitting 94-96 mph with his fastball, and used an improved slider to attack hitters while scattering just three hits without a walk.

It was an outing that, for Rodriguez and Baysox pitching coach Justin Ramsey, showed how much he’s grown. Rodriguez first displayed his special talents in 2019 at Low-A Delmarva by sharing the organization’s Jim Palmer Pitcher of the Year Award with a 2.68 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 129 strikeouts in 94 innings.

He spent his time at the alternate training site in Bowie last year learning to face more advanced hitters than the chase-prone opponents he faced in A-ball, and creating better separation between his curveball and slider. All that work made for an outing like Wednesday’s, which he referred to as a “good pitch day” where everything was working.

“At Delmarva, it was about establishing certain feels,” Ramsey said. “Now he can use those feels for game planning. He can move the ball around better, and he’s doing that. You’re seeing sliders on lefties, getting to places they can’t hit as opposed to a slider to be a slider, understanding it doesn’t play to their bat path unless you get it where it needs to go. He’s doing a better job of attacking guys with everything.”

There were several instances in which that was the case Wednesday, with Rodriguez burying back-foot sliders to left-handers and changing eye-levels against righties to keep Richmond hitters off-balance all game. The margins are finer at Double-A, he’s learned, and he feels as if he might not have been able to pitch that way two years ago as a first-timer in full-season ball.

Then, as now, Rodriguez got a lot of swinging strikes. His 15.1% swinging strike rate from 2019 has improved to a minors-best 19.9% entering Wednesday, and he got 14 swinging strikes on 83 pitches against Richmond. But the way he’s getting them, in his mind, has been more challenging.

“Guys don’t chase here as much,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to be able to land pitches for strikes and also have those breaking balls or changeups, whatever they might be, appear to be in the zone a little bit longer to get them to bite because if it’s not a strike out of hand, they’re not swinging at it.”

Rodriguez has a 2.12 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP with 122 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings between High-A Aberdeen and Bowie.

His season hasn’t been without its challenges. Rodriguez acknowledged the advanced hitters he’s facing can hit balls over the plate, and he’s “learned that the hard way, giving up some long balls” — six in 12 starts in Double-A. Ramsey said there’s also been some recent issues with pitch efficiency keeping Rodriguez from getting to his prescribed five innings, partially because he “started trying to do a little too much with some things” and got out of whack.

His attack was better Wednesday, Ramsey said, although foul balls still elevated his pitch count.

Though he’s just 21 years old, Rodriguez’s development is coming in smaller increments than it did earlier in his career. He remade his body and pitching arsenal ahead of his senior season in high school to elevate his draft stock, and has only built on that since. He had a planned early-season period off in 2019 to work on his changeup and needed one bullpen session to get a grasp on it as opposed to the prescribed week-plus. He distinguished his breaking ball at the Bowie camp.

There aren’t big changes like that on tap anymore for a pitcher whose development has been so successful that he’s put himself on the fast-track to the majors. But being able to quickly make the changes he needs to and adapt as one of nine pitchers in their age-21 season with at least 10 starts in the high minors is providing plenty of challenges.

“Obviously, there’s days where he looks like he can go get anybody out,” Ramsey said. “There’s other days you see he still needs to work on some things. So, I think at the end of the day, he has the ability to get his work in regardless of what it is. That’s why he got so much out of the alternate site. Whether it’s here or a different level, he’s definitely applying what he needs to to be ready to do what he needs to do.”