If there was any debate about who was baseball's top pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez left room for very little doubt after his latest outing -- arguably the best of his pro career.
"I felt really good out there, I was able to throw all of my off-speed pitches and fastball early in the count and for strikes and that's been the big key for me lately," Rodriguez said. "Just getting ahead of hitters and being able to throw everything I've got for strikes early is the biggest thing for me. Being able to command all of my off-speed pitches has been a difference-maker."
Rodriguez coasted through his longest outing in exactly three years, exiting after tossing 68 of his 88 pitches for strikes. The right-hander needed 13 pitches or fewer to navigate through six of his seven frames and retired 17 consecutive batters in a span between the second and seventh innings. Of the 23 batters he faced on the night, Rodriguez threw a first-pitch strike 18 times.
"That was the biggest factor I took out of tonight, just limiting the walks," he said. "I've been focused on staying aggressive and attacking the zone and I executed that tonight, just staying ahead of everybody."
After he retired the side in order on 10 pitches in the opening frame, MLB.com's No. 3 overall prospect lost a 13-pitch battle with Preston Tucker, who was able to find a hole through the right side of the infield for a single. But, that would be all the offense the Stripers could muster for a while as Tucker was stranded at first following a pair of strikeouts and a shallow fly ball to center.
"He's a good hitter and that was a long at-bat, so after that I really just wanted to be a little more aggressive," Rodriguez said. "I definitely zeroed in on the zone a little more from there."
Rodriguez was in complete control from there, setting down the side in order over the next four frames -- whiffing the side in the fifth. The 2018 No. 11 overall Draft pick did not allow another baserunner until Tucker lined a single into center with two outs in the seventh. And again, he was left stranded at first after Rodriguez induced another fly ball to shallow center to end the frame.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder lowered his ERA to 2.32 and sports a 0.89 WHIP and a .175 average against in 10 starts (50 1/3 innings) with 76 strikeouts this season. Friday marked Rodriguez's fifth straight start of allowing two runs or fewer, and was his third scoreless outing of at least five innings this month.
Rodriguez has continued to become bigger, stronger and a more complete pitcher since being selected out of Central Heights High in Texas. He overwhelmed lower-level hitters during his 2019 full-season debut with pure stuff, learned a lot at the alternate site in 2020 and showed a real feel for his craft in reaching, and dominating in, Double-A last season to become the best pitching prospect in the game.
The 22-year-old has always had a legitimate four-pitch mix at his disposal, and all four have continued to get better as he’s learned how to use them more consistently. In 2021, he threw his fastball in the 95-101 mph range, commanding it extremely well with high spin rates and plus life. His mid-80s changeup continues to improve; it’s hard, late and really deceptive, especially coming off of his fastball. His slider is a plus out pitch, also in the mid-80s and he’s tightened his curve a bit to provide a fourth, low-80s, offering.
Rodriguez has always been able to throw strikes and the right-hander walked just 2.4 per nine in 2021. His steps forward came in his ability to further refine his command of all his offerings within the zone, a big reason why his strikeout rate climbed to 14.1 per nine and his batting average against dropped to .159 at the end of 2021.
His performance thus far at the Minors' highest level is proving his chance in The Show may be coming sooner rather than later, and his presence on the mound at Camden Yards will provide instant familiarity with former battery-mate and current Orioles catcher, Adley Rutschman.
"[Getting to the Major Leagues] is on my mind pretty regularly," Rodriguez said. "I think everybody waits for that callup to the bigs, but right now all you can do is put your head down and work and go out and make each start you're supposed to."