Before James McCann answered the question, the Orioles catcher wanted to take a step back to explain the reasoning behind the decision. For major league hitters, McCann said, the pitch recognition process begins at the pitcher’s release point.

Grayson Rodriguez knows it, too, and it’s what led to an alteration of one of his best pitches. When the right-hander threw his slider early in spring training — a pitch that worked supremely well in his rookie year — it wound up “kind of popping out of my hand and hitters were recognizing that early,” Rodriguez said.

The slight variance in Rodriguez’s release point affected what pitchers call tunneling — the aim to have each pitch come out at a similar, if not identical, arm angle and release point. Batters might not immediately recognize the pitch as a slider, but the different release point could at least help them recognize the incoming pitch is something other than his high-velocity fastball, for instance.

So Rodriguez experimented with grips during the spring, and what he settled on could make a major difference. The slider is coming out of his hand now about 5 mph faster than it did last year. Most importantly, though, it’s coming out at a similar enough angle and release point.

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“When you’re talking about tunneling pitches, with what his arsenal is, the harder slider plays a little better than, say, a sweeper,” McCann said. “Because, say you have a four-seam, curveball and changeup, instead of a sweeper that changes planes, now the harder slider comes out looking like a fastball. But it’s a slider.”

The variation has tripped up Statcast, Major League Baseball’s advanced metrics system. In three starts, with another scheduled Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins, Rodriguez’s new slider is coupled with his cutter as the same pitch.

But they’re two different offerings, with distinct values. Statcast lists Rodriguez’s cutter at an average of 87.7 mph with three more inches of horizontal break and seven more inches of vertical break than last year’s cutter. Many of these are, in fact, sliders.

Therefore, it’s hard to determine the exact metrics of Rodriguez’s new slider except by word of mouth. Rodriguez says, generally, if it comes out of his hand between 85 and 87 mph, it’s likely the slider. If it’s 88 to 90 mph, it’s his cutter.

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The horizontal break is, naturally, more significant on his slider — but not always as much as last year.

Parsing individual pitches thrown this year gives an indication that Rodriguez’s slider gave up some horizontal break in favor of velocity. Last year, his slider averaged 11 inches of horizontal sweep. Against the Boston Red Sox last week, two of Rodriguez’s sliders forced hitters into outs. They came in at 85.3 and 86.7 mph, respectively, and both had at least six inches of arm-side run. He generated as much as 9.6 inches of sweep on a slider to Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this month, and that still whizzed in at 86.1 mph.

“The slower it is, guys, if they recognize it, they can spit on it or don’t have to get on it as quick,” Rodriguez said. “The 5 or 6 mph difference really makes guys have to rush, so hopefully generating a few more chases with it.”

Another factor for the change in Rodriguez’s slider is with his curveball in mind. His curveball is an elite offering, drawing a 38.9% whiff rate this season. It loops in on average at 80.5 mph; it has a different shape than his old slider, but McCann said the Orioles wanted to introduce a “different speed range” to Rodriguez’s arsenal.

When he wants to slow things down, there’s the curveball. His superior change-up (83.6 mph) plays off his fastball (96.1 mph). Then his slider comes in at 85 to 87, completing a velocity catalog that can range from 80 to 100 mph.

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And it’s coming out of that same arm slot, the all-important factor that makes this version of the slider more deceiving.

“When you’re tunneling everything, it just makes it a lot harder on a hitter,” McCann said. “When a guy has three or four pitches he’s tunneling off each other, it makes it a lot easier to call a game.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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