When the Orioles optioned former top prospect Grayson Rodriguez to Triple-A Norfolk in late May after an up-and-down debut, they still believed that he had top-of-the-rotation potential.
The electric stuff was there; he just wasn’t able to consistently translate it into success yet.
But in his second start back with the Tides, the 6-foot-5 right-hander showed how dominant he could be and how he could be on the verge of another shot with the O’s soon.
On Friday against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Rodriguez struck out 10 batters over six innings and racked up 28 whiffs -- the most on file Statcast has recorded in a Triple-A outing this season. For context, that’s only happened in the Majors 38 times since 2008.
Of course, Triple-A competition is a fraction of what Rodriguez faced in the Majors, where he ran up a 7.35 ERA over 45 1/3 innings. But getting so many swings and misses was a big confidence boost as the 23-year-old gets back to what he does best.
“It’s getting back to commanding the fastball down in the zone, up in the zone,” Rodriguez said. “Breaking balls and putting guys away. I think when I was in the big leagues this year, I kind of shied away and went soft a lot, threw a lot of cutters, and that’s really not my game. I’m getting back to the basics and establishing the fastball and putting guys away."
When he was in Baltimore, Rodriguez threw his fastball just 44.8 percent of the time, and an overreliance on off-speeds led to him only throwing pitches in the zone 41.4 percent of the time. On Friday, he ticked up his fastball usage to 51.0 percent, which allowed him to maintain a 46.9 percent zone rate.
With a focus on establishing the fastball and letting his secondary pitches play off it, all of his pitches worked better in unison. Rodriguez said improving his curveball and slider was a big goal after the demotion, and both were outstanding in limited uses -- four whiffs on five swings for the curve and whiffs on all five swings for the slider.
“The off-speed pitches, in particular, are something that I’ve struggled with this year,” Rodriguez said. “Really getting that consistent shapes. So coming down here, taking those extra reps to throw some breaking balls, tonight we were able to do that and get a feel for them in the game.”
Perhaps just as important as the whiffs were the lack of walks. The former No. 11 overall pick in the 2018 Draft ran a 10.0 percent walk rate in the Majors and dealt five free passes in his June 3 Triple-A start. But on Friday, he only issued one walk. Keeping that pitch count down allowed him to go six frames for the second straight start -- something he didn’t do in any of his 10 Major League starts.