Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect and one of the best young arms in all of baseball, was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk last month with a mixed bag of major league outings to draw experience from as he works to get back to Baltimore.

It was, in his own words, his “first taste of baseball being difficult,” and while the good outings were encouraging, he’s mostly been focused on the bad ones. As if the hyper-competitive 23-year-old needed it, thinking about the handful of things that interrupted his time with the big league club also presents him with pretty clear developmental goals.

“It makes the work more clear,” Rodriguez said. “It makes the goals more clear. Being down here and not having made a debut, you really don’t know what you need to work on because you never really ever struggled. Being in the big leagues, that was probably the first time in my career I ever struggled. It really brought to light the things I need to work on. It just gives us a much clearer goal on what needs to be done every time I take the mound.”

The next time he does so — likely Wednesday in Nashville — will be his fourth start back at Norfolk. In the first three, he’s struck out 27 in 18 innings with a 2.50 ERA and a 1.000 WHIP while executing on what the Orioles sent him down to work on.

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“The biggest thing for him coming down here started off with fastball command, which you see with the increase in usage there,” Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey said. “Obviously, with the big-league hitters, mistakes get hit a lot harder. You can’t out-stuff those guys the way you can even at this highest level of the minor leagues, so homing in on that has been a big priority, just getting the fastball where it’s intended to go.”

Rodriguez said the work with his fastball has been “pretty simple,” with better command of the pitch helping set up the rest of his arsenal as well.

“It all starts in the bullpen between starts, getting the catcher to set up a little bit outside the plate,” Rodriguez said. “It happens there. It’s also a focus thing, picking the target up a little bit sooner, just having a little bit more focus on the glove instead of the strike zone.”

In his 10 major league starts, Rodriguez threw his fastball 44.8% of the time, and it was hit hard. Opponents batted .395 off the pitch and slugged .750 on it, making it one of the harder-hit four-seamers in the game.

Yet Rodriguez feels he got away from what he refers to as “my style of pitching, a lot of fastballs” when he was in the majors. He’s throwing them far more often in the minors — 60% of the time — and missing bats with the pitch. There was consistent hard contact on the pitch in his second start against Scranton — 11 balls in play with five hits and a 97.2 mph average exit velocity — but overall, Triple-A opponents are hitting the ball an average of 89.2 mph off the pitch, as opposed to 94.3 mph in the big leagues.

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“I think one of the biggest things we’re seeing is fewer mistakes with the heater over the heart of the plate, and again, part of that is just staying on the attack, being more comfortable with letting it rip through the zone, through the intended locations that we’re trying to get to,” Ramsey said. “You’re definitely seeing fewer pitches there, because one, he’s working ahead better, which obviously lends itself to being more aggressive to different parts of the zone as opposed to just trying to throw a strike.”

The fastball emphasis is in response to Rodriguez’s belief that he got away from himself in the majors.

“I strayed away from throwing fastballs, had a lot of usage with the cutter,” he said. “To me, that’s my fifth-best pitch, so really, [I was] just kind of staying away from dominating guys with the fastball and had to be a lot more clean with the off-speed.”

Rodriguez’s cutter was hit just as hard, if not harder, than his fastball in the majors, with the rest of his secondaries getting better outcomes. Through three starts in Norfolk, Rodriguez hasn’t thrown his cutter at all — though some harder sliders have been classified as such in Statcast.

Beyond the fastball command, Rodriguez is working to get his slider — an elite pitch as he climbed through the minors — back to where it was before.

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“When I was in the big leagues, the slider was not there,” Rodriguez said. “We were having trouble with it every start, and coming back down here, adjusting the grip a little bit and really seeing it on the Edgertronic cameras, the slow-motion stuff, really just getting it dialed in and getting it back to where we wanted it to be.”

Ramsey said the efforts have been directed at getting “a tighter, sharper break with strike-to-ball … just a sharper version of that that can play off the heaters that we’re getting to better locations.”

Rodriguez threw just four sliders in his first Triple-A outing, but had eight whiffs on 17 sliders in his second and four on 13 in his third. Only one has been put in play — a flyout in his most recent outing.

Both Ramsey and Norfolk manager Buck Britton have been impressed with how Rodriguez handled the demotion and attacked the work in order to hopefully shorten his stint with the Tides. Rodriguez’s talent is such that he never had to deal with the challenges the majors provided at any point in his baseball life. It also means he’s been tabbed to eventually lead the Orioles’ rotation since the moment he was drafted back in 2018. Rodriguez still thinks that’s his future.

“That’s something I believe[d] for a long time, something I still really strongly believe,” he said. “When I’m out there on the mound, I don’t like to think there’s a hitter that can touch my stuff. That’s just the mindset you’ve got to have, and it’s the mindset I’m still working with.”

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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