The Orioles surprised a lot of people back in 2018 when, with the 11th overall selection of the Draft, they took Grayson Rodriguez, a Texas high schooler most felt was more of a back-half-of-the-first-round kind of talent. It looks as if the Baltimore scouting staff got it right and the right-hander was one of the best things handed off to the new regime when Mike Elias and company took over in November of that year.
When Rodriguez entered pro ball, he was almost all size and arm strength with the hopes of him becoming a pitcher. Thanks to his hard work and the Orioles’ player development system, the hope turning into reality took a huge step forward in 2021. Now considered the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, the 21-year old dominated across High-A and Double-A en route to becoming the clear choice for MLB Pipeline Pitching Prospect of the Year.
It took Rodriguez, the No. 8 overall prospect in baseball, all of five starts to get past the High-A level, posting a 40/5 K/BB ratio in 23 1/3 innings to earn a bump up to Double-A. The missing of bats continued up a level, with a 121/22 K/BB rate in 79 2/3 IP with Bowie. While exceeding 100 innings in a season for the first time, Rodriguez led all pitchers who topped that century mark in K/9 rate (14.07), strikeout rate (40.5 percent) and batting average against (.159). His 161 total strikeouts placed him sixth on the list among all Minor League pitchers and eighth on the K/BB list (among pitchers with 100 or more IP) at 5.96.
“I'd say that this is the year and the first time that I've ever really learned how to pitch, read scouting reports and just kind of go out and attack hitters with my strengths and their weaknesses,” Rodriguez said on a recent episode of the Pipeline Podcast. "That's kind of been a pride thing for me this year, is just kind of learning how to be a pitcher and not go up there and just throw heaters at the top of the zone and breaking balls down in the dirt or always go heater 3-0 to get back in the count. This year, I've been able to go curveball, slide or changeup, whatever it is, to work back when I'm behind. And to me, that's kind of huge.”
It’s a little frightening -- for hitters, at least -- to think that Rodriguez is still learning his craft. He got by with “just throwing” during his first full season in 2019, striking out 12.4 Low-A hitters per nine innings and keeping them to a .171 BAA. All of his numbers, from K rate, to K/BB, to BAA, improved in 2021, despite the move across two levels. The Orioles front office was impressed not only with his production but with how he went about producing throughout this huge season.
“We’re really happy with Grayson’s performance this year and the progress he showed developmentally,” Orioles farm director Matt Blood said. “He’s a very focused, determined and competitive person. He takes his work very seriously. He takes his health very seriously, and I think we saw the fruits of that effort play out this year by the fact he was able to pitch the whole season and make improvements in his effectiveness and essentially dominate all year. From our standpoint, it was exciting to see, and he’s platforming himself well for the future.”
Rodriguez’s accomplishments are all the more impressive given that they come after a year when he, like prospects everywhere, didn’t throw a single competitive pitch. Rather than see that as a negative, Rodriguez used his time facing older and more experienced Orioles hitters to figure out that he'd better start learning how to pitch if he was going to keep succeeding as he moved up.
“We were able to get in a lot of good work in our alternate site,” Rodriguez said. “I know that might sound or might seem crazy, but it's all of our analytical technology and stuff like that. We were able to see what kind of stuff would play and what wouldn't.
"We also had quite a few more hitters there than pitchers. So there were some big guys for me to face. It was a big learning experience; there were days where I got hit around pretty good. I was just figuring out that you can't throw the ball down the middle anymore, no matter how fast it is. All three pitches have to be there. So I was able to make that adjustment coming into Spring Training this year, and it's worked out great for me.”