The mechanical differences between the Grayson Rodriguez of late May and the Rodriguez of July are so minuscule that it takes a slow-motion video to truly discern anything at all.
There’s the slightly lower release angle. The Orioles right-hander is setting up more on the third-base side of the rubber, but even that is an infinitesimal change. He’s turning his head to pick up his catcher’s target slightly earlier, and he’s focusing on his momentum leading him straight down the mound, with no fall-off or lean on either side.
Peruse elsewhere, though, and there’s more about Rodriguez that seems different than what he showed in his final start May 26, before Baltimore optioned their future ace to Triple-A Norfolk. When Rodriguez returned Monday to start for the Orioles in a loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the adrenaline coursing through the former top Orioles pitching prospect drove his fastball to a high of 101 mph in the first inning.
He stomped around the mound after putouts as if he’d never left — or rather, as if he never wants to leave again. He reared back and fired fastball after fastball, sticking to a strength he rediscovered during his stint with Norfolk.
More than anything mechanical, Rodriguez feels he found himself again with the Tides.
What, exactly, does that mean?
“I guess really thinking I had to do things differently, and that kind of wasn’t the case,” Rodriguez said. “Sticking to my strengths, I got away from that when I was up here. Going back down, getting a chance to work on that, that’s really helped out reminding me who I am — and that’s just working the fastball to both sides of the plate, up and down in the zone.”
Rodriguez worked his fastball early and often during his Monday return, throwing it nearly half the time. Between his four-seamer and change-up, Rodriguez threw those offerings a combined 82% of the time — showing a pronounced focus on his two best pitches.
He also threw both of them, along with his slider, faster on average than he had across his early career. His fastball, in particular, averaged 97.9 mph across his five-inning start.
That’s a trend Rodriguez displayed with Norfolk. Rodriguez found a way to improve his extension toward the plate, meaning he released the ball closer to the batter. This led to increased fastball velocity but created a lower induced vertical break — a measure of his fastball’s vertical movement based on how it spins, in part because the pitch had less time to move.
When Rodriguez looks back on his first 10 starts — and he had plenty of time to study them while making tweaks in Triple-A — he takes heart in knowing half of them were solid. He doesn’t entirely mind the timing of his early struggles, either.
He particularly points to his starts against the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, in which he allowed eight earned runs each in 3 1/3 innings. His approach varied in each (he threw his four-seamer just 41% of the time against Los Angeles and 59% against Texas) but his command was poor. He walked three batters in each, and the need for reevaluation became apparent.
“I just kind of didn’t feel like myself,” Rodriguez said. “That was kind of the turning point, where I knew I had something to work on. Obviously, going back down to Triple-A gave me the opportunity to fix that.”
Still, Rodriguez readily admits this was the “first time I ever really faced adversity in baseball before.” He’s been a top prospect for years, performing at a high level in the minor leagues since he was taken in the first round of the 2018 draft out of Nacogdoches, Texas.
“Being in the big leagues, that’s the best of the best,” Rodriguez said. “Having good starts was big on the confidence, knowing that I do have the stuff to be successful at this level. And then also the bad starts, really seeing I have a lot to work on. It’s a very humbling game, so I’m kind of glad I had that adversity early, whereas feeling more like myself heading down the stretch, playing some really important baseball coming up, exciting and eager to see what that holds.”
To help ease frustration about the demotion, Rodriguez’s agent got him in touch with Oklahoma baseball coach Skip Johnson — a former pitching coach — soon after Rodriguez arrived in Norfolk. Johnson helped point Rodriguez in the right direction in several areas, including mental cues and the adjustment to look at his catcher earlier.
It helped pave the way for Rodriguez’s work in the minors, which also included practically removing the cutter entirely from his arsenal. That pitch, which he has thrown 11.2% of the time in the majors, held a negative-four run value. Using the cutter meant Rodriguez wasn’t throwing his bread and butter as frequently, and he fixed that Monday by throwing just one.
Rodriguez said depending on the matchup, his cutter could still make an appearance. But he knows now what works and what doesn’t. And while there are bound to be bumps along the way even with that knowledge — such as a sixth inning Monday that spiraled and left him with four runs on his ledger — Rodriguez is back with the hope of being an important fixture in Baltimore’s rotation into the fall.
And he’ll do that by being the same pitcher he was to reach this point.
“Just kind of getting back into a lion mentality,” Rodriguez said. “You’re the hunter out there.”