This isn’t what the Orioles wanted. Most of all, it’s not what Grayson Rodriguez wanted. But it’s the position Baltimore found itself in with the heralded young pitching prospect.
The Orioles optioned the right-hander to Triple-A Norfolk 10 starts into his major league career, a move designed to give Rodriguez time to recalibrate. His 10 big league appearances have featured an inconsistency that Rodriguez described Friday night as frustrating, because he knows his stuff can play at this level. “Just got to go out and do better than that,” he said.
Rodriguez has learned, though, that as good as his arsenal is, there are shortcomings to his game that have been exposed by the highest level of competition. Rodriguez largely blew through the minor leagues. And, even in the majors, his 26.5% strikeout rate is elite.
But, as was especially apparent in Friday’s loss to the Texas Rangers, in which Rodriguez was chased after allowing eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, his command has let him down. His missed pitches were left in the heart of the zone, leading to hard contact in the fourth inning. A large part of command revolves around misses that are unhittable — that is, out of the strike zone, away from a hitter’s hot zone.
“We know he can do it,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s now, for me, just being more consistent with it.”
That will be Rodriguez’s major focus with Triple-A Norfolk. A team source with direct knowledge of the situation said the Orioles will bring Rodriguez back as soon as his performances sharpen — or even before, if Baltimore has a major need.
Across those 10 starts, Friday’s stood out more perhaps because of how solid he was earlier in the week against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he allowed two runs in five innings. His performances have ranged from great to poor, leaving him with a 7.35 ERA.
“Fastball command is the No. 1,” Hyde said. “Grayson’s got huge stuff and he throws really hard and flashes good secondary, but it’s tough to pitch in this league if you don’t have really good fastball command as a starter, and be able to go through lineups a few times and be able to go deeper into games.”
Right-hander Kyle Gibson, the 35-year-old veteran who holds more major league perspective than anyone in the clubhouse, texted Rodriguez on Saturday morning. His message was twofold. One, he wanted Rodriguez to know, if he needs anything during his time in the minors, he shouldn’t hesitate to text or call.
Two, Gibson insisted the confidence he and his teammates have in Rodriguez hasn’t wavered. Gibson can lean on his own experience, when he was optioned by the Minnesota Twins in 2017.
“What I felt in 2017, we were playing really well, and at that point I had a 9 ERA through 10 starts. So I was even worse,” Gibson said. “But I felt like I was the reason we were losing every five days, and that’s an easy feeling to have. So my message to him was, ‘Hey, everyone in this locker room has a lot of confidence in you. Don’t think that we’ve lost any of that.’
“Because when he gets called back up — which, it’s not going to be long, my guess — he needs to know that we all have his back, regardless. And that doesn’t change by just a couple bad starts.”
Before Gibson’s 2017 demotion, he also experienced a rookie-season setback in 2013. He pitched 10 games, just as Rodriguez has, and held a 6.53 ERA. Of those starts, Gibson recalls only two or three being very competitive. Part of the learning curve of the major leagues is discovering how to employ certain pitches, or whether to lean more heavily on one offering over another.
There’s a mindset change that needs to occur upon a demotion, Gibson said, to enable a quick return to the majors. There are different avenues to take that can lead to an improvement or cause a spiral. Gibson, though, has no doubt Rodriguez will “be the best version that he can be.”
“Obviously, it sucks,” Gibson said. “But it doesn’t change how anybody in this locker room looks at him. It doesn’t change, I’m sure, how the organization looks at him, because he’s a stud. When things start clicking or when he figures out whatever it is that they’re telling him to work on, he’s going to be a staple here for a long time.”
In the short term, the Orioles recalled left-hander Keegan Akin for bullpen support. When Rodriguez’s next spot in the rotation arrives Wednesday, the club could opt for a bullpen day (given Thursday is a day off) or call up a starter, such as left-hander Bruce Zimmermann. Right-hander Austin Voth, who covered 3 2/3 innings after Rodriguez on Friday, is another option.
The long-term outlook, though, still features Rodriguez as an integral part of the rotation. He’s 23. He’s not the first rookie to get hit around early in his career. In years past, when the Orioles weren’t contending for a playoff spot, there would’ve been a longer leash for Rodriguez to learn at the highest level — to work through the inconsistencies that have defined his stint in the majors.
But Baltimore finds itself in a playoff push. That leaves Rodriguez to rediscover his form with Triple-A Norfolk, waiting for his next chance to arrive and contribute in the way the Orioles still believe he can.