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How Orioles first-rounder Grayson Rodriguez became the draft's fastest-rising prospect

The Orioles introduce their first round draft pick pitcher Grayson Rodriguez. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The miles, thousands upon thousands of them logged across South Texas over the past year, proved to be worth millions.

Yet that's not what choked up Gilbert Rodriguez as he thought about all that had made his son, Grayson, the Orioles' top draft pick this year and by virtue of that, a future foundational arm for the franchise.

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At the core of a year of development — one that featured countless modern baseball and fitness axioms coming together to improve the 18-year-old pitcher — was a high school senior who knew good wasn't good enough, and cast aside the life of a star athlete to ensure his best days wouldn't have come in Nacogdoches, Texas.

"I missed out on a lot of basketball games, times hanging out with friends," Grayson Rodriguez said. "But it was all worth it."

As he drove — riding two hours each way to Houston for pitching lessons with his father or driving the 2006 Dodge pickup he got from his grandfather 90 minutes through the plains to Tyler, Texas, to transform his body — Rodriguez didn't need much distraction from the downtime. Why change his focus from why he did it all?

"Just about what my goal was in general, where I wanted to be," he said of his mindset on the road. "And I know without hard work, goals aren't achievable. So, I was just thinking of what's ahead of me and what I could achieve, and that really drove me."

As the draft's biggest pop-up player according to many analysts, Rodriguez's rise up draft boards and his physical transformation — adding 20 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame — came to define him. But that belies that he was already the state high school Player of the Year in 2017, leading Central Heights to a Texas 3A championship before hitting the summer circuit and showcasing a fastball that was mostly 91-92 mph and breaking balls he focused on making look like breaking balls.

It was already good enough to land him an offer to pitch at Texas A&M, and to get his name called in this month's draft. But as scouts started to look at him more as a pitcher than a hitter, where he also excelled, Rodriguez took advantage of an infrastructure around him — well, within a long drive of him — to take it a step forward.

Orioles first-round draft pick, pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, is introduced during the game against the Red Sox on Tuesday at Camden Yards.
Orioles first-round draft pick, pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, is introduced during the game against the Red Sox on Tuesday at Camden Yards. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

David Evans, a former professional pitcher who was the last spring training cut from the 1999 Orioles, has grown into a pitching guru in Houston and is constantly sent young hurlers for seasoning. The call from Rodriguez's advisor, J.D. Smart, came after the summer showcase circuit.

"He said, 'Hey, I've got a kid that I need you to see and put your hands on,’ ” Evans said. "He told me his size. 'He's really big, he's strong, athletic, but I know that there's more in there. I just can't seem to get it out. I just know that there's more in there.' ”

After their first meeting, Evans called Smart back.

"Man, you weren't kidding," he told him.

Their once-a-week offseason work was centered on, essentially involving Rodriguez's entire body in his delivery instead of him barreling down the mound and using his arm strength to generate power.

"It wasn't like he wasn't good," Evans said. "He was already really good, but it's taking the athlete like that and getting him to really understand his body from a biomechanics standpoint, and really how to efficiently get him moving down the mound, getting him kinetically synced up and understanding more of how his body works."

For Rodriguez, the progress in those sessions didn't come quickly. Evans wanted him to have a good foundation with a secure back leg, which could provide the balance and power to make his delivery efficient and repeatable. There was a natural feeling-out process between the two, and even as they spent nearly a month's worth of sessions trying to solidify that one fundamental aspect, Rodriguez bought in, did the homework assignments and eventually saw the results in what Evans called a lightbulb moment.

Once that occurred, Evans said it "unleashed the athlete in there." Rodriguez was throwing harder without his arm doing the work, and undoubtedly feeling the benefit of all those drives in the other direction to change his physique.

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Garner Rodriguez, 10, from right, the brother of Orioles' first-round draft pick Grayson Rodriguez, left, his mother, Temple, and girlfriend, Madison Freeland, watch Grayson' introductory news conference before Tuesday's game against the Red Sox at Camden Yards.
Garner Rodriguez, 10, from right, the brother of Orioles' first-round draft pick Grayson Rodriguez, left, his mother, Temple, and girlfriend, Madison Freeland, watch Grayson' introductory news conference before Tuesday's game against the Red Sox at Camden Yards. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Around those Houston sessions with Evans, Rodriguez drove north to train at APEC, a professional grade facility in Tyler. Kye Heck, his trainer there, got the same impression Evans did upon their first meeting. Both the athletic training and specialized coaching fields can be full of, for lack of a better word, phonies — players with unreasonable opinions of themselves, pushed by unrealistic parents toward unachievable goals. Rodriguez was never that.

"He was determined," Heck said. "He had some pretty solid goals. He wanted to improve his velocity and add muscle and things like that. Sometimes when you get those kids, you can kind of tell they have that attitude of, 'I'm a pretty big deal. You guys are lucky to have me.' For him, it was the exact opposite."

That impression was backed up by the fact that Rodriguez always showed up — save for the one time his parents wouldn't let him drive in an ice storm.

Rodriguez was all business when he arrived at the facility that also trains Chicago White Sox top pitching prospect Michael Kopech and New York Mets star Noah Syndergaard, taking quickly to the three-pronged program of dynamic movement training, core strength work and the pitcher-specific workouts.

"A lot of guys try to build the pitcher first, then the athlete," Heck said. "What we found with our system is if we can improve their speed strength and power and all those things, then the pitching naturally elevates with that."

The combination of the two provided an immediate benefit for Rodriguez. Evans said he could see the athleticism emerge through their session, but that's probably because it was developing before his eyes. It made for a pitcher who was throwing hard without trying to.

"The ball felt different coming out of my hand," Rodriguez said. "It was jumping out of my hand and it felt like half the effort it did before to throw it as hard as I wanted to. I definitely didn't have to try to throw hard. It just kind of came a lot more natural."

Once that all clicked, Evans opened him up to even more instruction. Rodriguez practically begged for it. They redeveloped his breaking pitches in a way informed by the modern game.

"I was more of a curveball guy then," Rodriguez said. "I felt like I could make my pitches move a lot more. But as I talked to a lot of pitching coaches and a lot of guys with that expertise, they said it's not necessarily about how much a pitch moves; it's about how it misses the bat.

"Advanced hitters can see it, so it's nothing to them. So, I started working on a slider and focused on throwing it harder and making it move less, than slower and making it move more. That turned out to be a big success for me."

Before long, 91-92 mph was 94 and 95, and he topped out at 98 mph in another dominant season with Central Heights while backing it up with a low-80s slider, a curveball and an occasional changeup. From the time Orioles area scout Thom Dreier got his first look, Rodriguez was atop his list. The fastball velocity gets any scout’s attention. What keeps it is the secondary pitches, and Dreier noticed how the two facets of that offseason work came together on the mound.

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“Well, he's a plus athlete for as big a guy as he is,” Dreier said. “He moves really well, and incorporating his lower half, what he's able to do is he's able to achieve what I call a positive torso angle as he goes to the plate. What that means is when his stride leg hits the ground, or just prior to when his stride leg hits the ground, his torso is not vertical — it's angled backward.

“You'll see it on Kevin Gausman. You'll see it on Dylan Bundy. What you're able to do when you achieve that torso angle is you're able to engage those muscles in your core in helping your arm come through. You're not just using your arm anymore. You're using your entire body to throw, and that's something that Grayson does really well. That's why he's able to throw as hard as he does with as minimal effort as he does.”

It drew all the top decision makers to his games this spring. The Orioles saw him 11 times total, and every look was a good one. He didn't waver, dominating with his repeatable delivery and by throwing strikes. Once the Orioles got to know his family, and the commitment both they and he made to Rodriguez’s development gave a foundation to believe he’d be a sound investment. The family has a baseball field in their yard for his younger brother to play on, so all those miles in search of a higher level for Grayson weren’t an aberration.

"It just kind of showed them the effort and work I'm willing to put forward for their ballclub, and later down the road — not just for personal benefit; for the benefit of the club," he said.

Heck knows that to be true. When they spoke after the draft — both Heck and Evans got appreciative calls from their young charge — the Orioles' newest top pitching prospect had only one thing on his mind.

"Does this mean I get to work out with the pro group?" Rodriguez asked.

"Yeah, Grayson, it does," Heck told him. "You can go with the big boys next year."

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