The way the Orioles got here is beside the point, though certainly part of it. With Grayson Rodriguez, here is in the majors, where he’s being challenged in a way he hasn’t been at any stop in his superlative minor league career.
We know this much now: He should stay up. They and he will be better for it.
To manager Brandon Hyde, Rodriguez had better stuff Tuesday night, in his home debut, than six days ago in Texas. His fastball stayed in the mid-to-upper 90s into the fifth inning. His slider was sharper. And he got ahead of Oakland’s hitters with those pitches consistently.
It was “young pitcher mistakes,” in Hyde’s words, that meant he couldn’t press his advantage when ahead and ended up charged with five runs in 4 1/3 innings — with all six hits and all four walks he issued coming with two strikes. The Orioles would go on to win 12-8, thanks to an epic night from Ryan Mountcastle that will long be remembered, but the experience Rodriguez gained will ultimately be more important.
“Hopefully, he learns from that,” Hyde said. “The guy’s throwing 98 [mph] with a good slider and a really good changeup. There’s places to go when you’re ahead in the count to get an easy out or get a punchout. A little tough time doing that tonight.”
The reason why Rodriguez is such a prized young prospect — one of the game’s best on the mound at age-23, worthy of a commemorative “Gas ‘em up” T-shirt giveaway for his home debut, and potentially a key part of the Orioles’ next playoff rotation — is because he’s never really had a tough time doing that before.
Rodriguez struck out 35.9% of the batters he faced in the minors. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of an overpowering fastball, a slider and changeup that challenge hitters in each batter’s box and, most relevant to this conversation, a talent advantage over every single hitter he faced.
After Tuesday’s win, he admitted this is different.
“The mistakes are amplified,” Rodriguez said. “These guys can hit — it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. They’re big-league caliber players, they can get the barrel on the baseball. If you’re 0-2 and they’re in protect mode and your pitch is too close to the zone, they’re going to swing at it and probably hit it.”
He got to two strikes against 18 of the 23 A’s he faced, and simply following the attack plan wasn’t enough. He threw 16 four-seamers, almost all elevated or on the hands, and coaxed one swinging strike on them while allowing three two-strike singles on the heater. Adley Rutschman called for Rodriguez’s slider, which got fewer whiffs as 2022 went along in Norfolk and has been altered this spring in hopes of improving that, 11 times for one whiff, a flyout, and a single. On nine two-strike changeups, the A’s swung at six, whiffed just once and knocked a pair of singles.
“I think we made some mistakes 0-2, throwing pitches too close to the zone,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously, had to pay the price for it. Big league hitters will put the barrel on it and get a hit.”
That these lessons are being learned at the major league level to begin with comes down to an unfortunate line drive off Kyle Bradish’s foot last week in Texas, as Rodriguez entered spring training in line for a rotation spot and didn’t win one, relegating him to opening day starter status at Triple-A Norfolk.
No one denies he wasn’t the best version of himself in spring training, and with better options in the moment, the Orioles chose them. What the two big league starts since Bradish’s injury have illustrated depends on one’s perspective. In his first start, he looked to be validating that decision to start him down below with a shaky first inning before settling in for five strong innings. On Tuesday, he showed what he was — a pitcher learning how to get major league hitters out.
When the Toronto Blue Jays came to town last August, I spent some time with Kevin Gausman — a pitcher whose introduction to the majors in the Buck Showalter-era Orioles was choppy at best. He started and relieved, he was optioned and called back up, and forced to learn about the business of the game at a time when he should have been learning, simply, about being as effective as he could be at playing it.
It took him getting out of Baltimore, bouncing around, and ending up with a team that accentuated his best traits to become the starter the Orioles envisioned he’d be a decade earlier when selected fourth overall, but his thoughts on player development were simple: To truly figure the game out, a pitcher has to pitch against the best hitters.
“That’s what I try to tell these young guys: The only way you’re going to gain knowledge is just by getting out here,” Gausman told me, motioning to the field at Camden Yards.
Right now, that’s the best place for Rodriguez, and the Orioles know that being at the highest appropriate level and facing top competition is about as effective a way for a player to improve as there is. They move minor leaguers up aggressively through the farm system on the hitting side, at least; their moderation when it comes to pushing pitchers as quickly has always seemed to stem from wanting to keep them healthy as opposed to a different developmental philosophy.
As the Orioles have improved over the last year, Hyde credited the everyday exposure to major league competition for pushing the players on his roster to improve, many to the point that they’re part of a core that is expected to push for October baseball in 2023. He said Tuesday that Rodriguez would get another start with the Orioles before they need to make a decision on their rotation upon Bradish’s return from the injured list.
Without casting a vote on where Rodriguez’s future is beyond that next start, Hyde laid out a compelling case for keeping him up if the Orioles so choose.
“A lot of our guys — that’s what they’ve gone through the last couple of years,” Hyde said. “We haven’t had a real veteran club the last few years, and these guys are all — you’re seeing guys start to mature and certain guys start to get games under their belt to be better baseball players. Grayson’s just starting, so he’s going to make mistakes. He’s got a really good arm and we’re really excited about him going forward.”