Only a select few Major League Baseball draft picks show their true talent level in their first professional summer. For so many others, a team is left holding its proverbial breath and waiting to see who shows up the following spring.
Kyle Moore, manager of the Orioles’ Low-A affiliate Delmarva Shorebirds, said the Orioles were firmly in the latter camp with their first-round pick (11th overall) from a year ago, Texas high school right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, who shot up draft boards and was selected over several higher-ranked players.
"We were going, 'Is that the guy?' " Moore said. "In spring training, it was, 'Wow, that's a good pick. Look at this kid.' So, he has a great spring training, and we come up here, and we're all holding our breath, like, 'Man, I hope the kid that was in spring training got on the plane. I hope it's the same kid.'
For a month now, the 19-year-old Rodriguez has been every bit the first-round talent that was advertised. With 5 2/3 innings of one-run, three-hit ball and eight strikeouts Thursday, Rodriguez is 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA, 41 strikeouts against eight walks and a 0.885 WHIP in 26 innings.
Of the 22 teenage pitchers to make full-season rosters around baseball this spring, none have been better than Rodriguez. Having entered the season as the Orioles’ No. 5 prospect, according to Baseball America, Rodriguez has climbed into the publication’s most recent top-100 prospect list at No. 91.
"If it's possible for a high first-rounder to exceed expectations, he probably has," Moore said.
At the very least, he's backed up the buzz about him at the Orioles' minor league complex as so many new coaches and executives got a look at him for the first time.
"In the spring, everyone's kind of lighting up like, 'That's pretty good,' ” Delmarva pitching coach Justin Ramsey said. "He's lived up to that. He really has. To his credit, it doesn't go to his head. He's not just going, 'I've got this figured out.' He's always out there working, trying to get better.
“He has his moments, like every 19-year-old will do, but he does a good job of getting past that quick and doing what makes him successful."
He climbed predraft rankings and ended up as the Orioles' top pick, but he was back at the same training facilities this past offseason to try to build on all that growth. His programs included work with Rapsodo, the motion-capture radar and camera system that reveals the spin axis and plane of pitches and are a staple of the data-driven program the Orioles are trying to implement under minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt.
"They were able to tell us about it more in-depth than what I was in the offseason," Rodriguez said. "It's been a big part."
On Thursday, he exhibited that progress in several ways. His fastball was comfortably in the 90-91 mph range, down a bit from earlier outings but he showed he could reach back for more velocity late in counts or when he needed to get out of a jam. Fortunately for him, he didn't often have to. He struck out six of the first eight batters he faced around a first-inning hit batter and a second-inning popout.
He was able to mostly cruise because of his secondary pitches, which is not often something a high-school draftee in full-season ball can say this early in his career. Rodriguez tweaked the release on his slider to get more on top of it, he said, giving the pitch more vertical depth. Even when it flattened out, it was an effective swing-and-miss pitch Thursday against Greensboro, but he said they're trying to avoid that.
"In high school, I liked it to be kind of big and sweepy, and that didn't work," Rodriguez said. "That hasn't worked on our analytics side, with Holt and [executive vice president and general manager Mike] Elias coming in, so we've really worked on trying to get more depth to it, and it's been a big factor."
His most effective pitch Thursday, however, was his changeup — a pitch that a powerful prep pitcher like Rodriguez simply doesn't need before he turns pro. He said it's what he's most proud of so far this year, and the pitch's late fade got plenty of weak contact and whiffs in the 79-81 mph range against the Grasshoppers.
Feeling healthy, Orioles prospect Hunter Harvey’s goal becomes consistency. Making Wednesday’s rough showing, which raised his ERA to 6.20 with Double-A Bowie, more confounding was that it followed his best start of the season.
"In spring training, we had lots of meetings with Holty on what to throw in what counts, what kind of pitches to throw which hitters, and a changeup is a big emphasis, especially for me — learning how to throw and learning how to use it, just kind of figuring out how I can succeed with it was a big thing,” Rodriguez said.
"I always liked to see balls move," he said, referring to his teenage predilection for big, shapely pitches as opposed to those that fade near the plate, the way his changeup does now. "Whenever I threw changeups, that was just something I didn't like to throw, but now that I can throw it, I can see it move. It's a great pitch."
Ramsey said that speaks to what's struck him most about Rodriguez in their short time together. As a first-year pitcher, Rodriguez already skipped a start to limit his innings and work on things in late April. He was given some points of emphasis during that rest period and worked them in seamlessly by Thursday, the second start after his break. He said it "made just a world of difference in terms of the execution of pitches and the reaction of hitters.”
"He's done a really good job of applying kind of the work in spring training and what the goal was for certain guys in terms of how we want pitches to look, and it's a credit to him," Ramsey said. "I'm sure there's some natural ability to what he's able to do with the baseball, but it's also his commitment to working the process and trying to get better, to change up the spin rate on the slider or the curveball or like he said, the cutter, or obviously the fastball.
“I think the one I'm most impressed with is the changeup. … He's done a really good job of adding that pitch to the mix and keeping hitters off-balance with it."
Rodriguez's fourth start of the season — and the first after that two-week hiatus — was the only one he didn't dominate, though he allowed just two runs (one earned) on five hits in 3 2/3 innings. In his four other starts, he's struck out at least eight batters, pitched at least five innings, allowed one run or fewer, and was responsible for five base runners or fewer.
Moore said Thursday's start was just like the rest.
"You saw a high quality of command for his secondary stuff, which is really unusual for a 19-year-old," Moore said. "I can't imagine that kid pitching in college baseball right now. He'd be the best pitcher in all of college baseball. The poor kids in the [Southeastern Conference] would be struggling."