SARASOTA, FLA. — He has just 12 innings of professional baseball experience to draw from, but Orioles first-round draft pick Grayson Rodriguez can already speak thoughtfully about the difference between the Gulf Coast League and high school.
His mid-90s fastball doesn’t miss as many bats, and while it unquestionably plays, command is more critical. So is the effectiveness of his secondary pitches. It’s been an education for the 18-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, but they are lessons he’s embraced.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Rodriguez said Monday at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. “If you miss, hitters will make you pay for it. You’ve just got to be really careful. Unlike high school, where there’s a lot larger room for error, here that window shrinks, so you’ve got to make pitches and execute them, trust your catcher and ultimately just trust your stuff, too.”
The 11th overall pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft, Rodriguez has made the transition look as seamless as possible. In six professional games in the rookie-level GCL, the right-hander has yet to surrender a run. He’s allowed just seven hits in 12 innings, limiting hitters to a .167 batting average, while posting twice as many strikeouts (10) as walks (five).
When the Orioles took the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Rodriguez, who established himself as a first-round talent after he put on 25 pounds of muscle and added 5 to 6 mph on his fastball as a senior, scouting director Gary Rajsich raved that Rodriguez possessed a “unique combination of power and polish.” So far, that’s what the Orioles have seen.
“Absolutely,” GCL Orioles manager Carlos Tosca said. “There hasn’t been a game where you can say, ‘A guy hit a line drive here, hit a line drive there,’ or he was walking people. None of that stuff has occurred. He’s been the same guy, which is what consistency is. You want him to be the same guy every time he goes out there, and I don’t expect him to be anything different.”
This has been a whirlwind summer for Rodriguez, going from the draft’s biggest pop-up prospect to a first-round selection to receiving a $4.3 million signing bonus and being introduced at Camden Yards. Now he’s back at work, sweating through noon games in front of sparse crowds while pitching every fifth or sixth day.
“It’s been nice just to get out here and play baseball,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not that much different than high school. I didn’t really expect a whole lot for my first year, to be honest. It’s been a lot better than I would have thought. And it’s baseball — it’s fun to come out and play, no matter where you are.”
While this is just the first step in what the Orioles hope is a quick but prodigious path to the major leagues, it establishes an important foundation for Rodriguez. Tosca said Florida pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt and GCL Orioles pitching coach Wilson Álvarez have done a good job of not giving him too much information to clutter his mind, allowing him to pitch and build confidence.
“I think just getting out there on the mound more and facing better competition” is important, Tosca said. “So far, he’s dominated that competition. I just think he’s on the right track. The one thing you want him to do is get out of here healthy. That’s a big key here, to get out of here healthy. And if he pitches in [the team’s fall] instructional league, then pitch some there and be ready to make a team coming out of spring training next year.”
Rodriguez said he’s already seen himself grow over his five outings since his pro debut, a one-inning start on July 5.
“I know it’s only six starts, but I feel a lot different than my first time,” Rodriguez said. “Confidence is a big thing. I feel a lot more confidence. I know what I can do with my fastball just to get hitters out.”
“It seemed a little different, wearing an Orioles jersey, the colors,” he added of his debut, when he walked two batters, struck out one and induced two groundouts. “The game was fast. I did my best to slow it down and think out everything and make sure what I was doing was right. I was just trying to execute my pitches.”
After that first outing, Rodriguez’s next four lasted two innings, and his last one, on Friday, was a three-inning appearance. In that game, Rodriguez allowed a hit to the second batter he faced, then retired the next eight (one batter in that stretch reached base on a dropped third strike).
Since Rodriguez came to the Orioles having already logged 75 innings of high school ball, his total innings limit likely will be around 100. With pitcher draft picks, the Orioles consider the past three seasons of a prospect’s career, including high school and travel ball seasons, before determining an innings limit.
Rodriguez will likely have only three or four more outings before the season ends later this month, and he’s focused on taking advantage of those opportunities.
“Really, just working on trying to fine-tune my command, knowing the hitters better, reading them based on their swings on my pitches,” Rodriguez said. “Learning how to pitch to them. … There’s definitely not as many swing-and-misses on the fastball or the other pitches. But in a way, it’s almost better because I know if I pitch right and if I pitch to contact and try not to strike anybody out, I’ll throw a lot less pitches than I was [previously].”
Even though Rodriguez has been a pro for only a month, and his outings have been short, Tosca said he’s seen enough to know that the right-hander is special.
“The one thing that sticks out to me about him is his poise,” Tosca said. “His poise is well beyond his years, and he pitches with a lot of confidence. He’s been able to command his fastball. He has a good curveball. He’s got a changeup. He hasn’t used that too much, but when you’re going two innings, you probably don’t have enough of a chance of getting into that because you’re working on establishing your fastball. But he keeps the fastball at the bottom of the strike zone. He’s been really good at holding runners. He’s pretty polished for a kid who just came out of high school.”