After his first outing this spring, Grayson Rodriguez said the caliber of players in the Detroit Tigers’ lineup “lets you know you’re close to the big leagues.” Tuesday’s follow-up provided another notice.
The Orioles’ top pitching prospect crisply completed two innings last week, but in Rodriguez’s second spring training start, a Minnesota Twins lineup featuring nine major leaguers made him work, requiring him to throw 55 pitches to record eight outs.
Of course, Rodriguez wants to face big league lineups every five games in the near future. He’s among the dozen pitchers in camp out to earn five rotation spots, and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has said for months that he hopes Rodriguez claims one of them. With both of his starts this spring coming on the road, the right-hander has faced two lineups littered with regulars.
“Definitely gets me excited,” Rodriguez said. “That’s really what I was looking for coming into spring training. Obviously seeing [Carlos] Correa out there and a few others, it’s pretty fun to go against them.
“So far, they’re no different than anybody else I’ve played. Obviously, walks will hurt you. Fastballs down the middle will get you, too, so just attacking them like any other hitter.”
Rodriguez needed only 11 pitches in a perfect first inning, freezing Joey Gallo, then surrendering lineouts to Correa and Max Kepler, with his seven first-inning fastballs averaging 98.2 mph. He then needed 44 pitches for only five more outs. Although Rodriguez struck out four of the 13 batters he faced, two others walked, and six of the seven who put the ball in play did so at 96 mph or harder.
Jose Miranda began the second with a home run off a four-seamer left in the middle of the strike zone, and Donovan Solano followed by lining a 97 mph fastball back to Rodriguez at nearly the same speed, hitting the palm of his glove and knocking it off his left hand. He managed to throw out Solano at first and cleared a quick medical check to remain in the game. After a double, Rodriguez struck out the next two batters on changeups. He said that pitch, his signature secondary weapon, was “a little off” early, but he found it as the outing continued.
The four-seamer was his primary offering Tuesday. Of the 26 he threw, 17 elicited a swing, but the Twins failed to make contact on only three of them.
“We knew coming in obviously they had some big hitters in the lineup,” Rodriguez said. “Throw fastballs in the zone, make them hit it. Walks will hurt you, so we were really just gonna go at ‘em with fastballs.”
Rodriguez issued two walks in his final frame, though he also struck out Correa swinging on a 98 mph fastball. A walk to Miranda that loaded the bases ended his outing after 55 pitches. Manager Brandon Hyde said before the game the Orioles would focus more on the quality of Rodriguez’s pitches than their results, saying afterward “the stuff was there.”
“He’s got great stuff,” Hyde said. “We’re excited about him. He’s gonna have big things ahead for him. Now, it’s just about really a little bit better command and working ahead in the count.”
Regardless, it appears the Orioles are lining up Rodriguez to be their fifth starter, though the three weeks between now and opening day could certainly prompt change. Their spring rotation cycle seems to go Kyle Gibson, Tyler Wells, Kyle Bradish, Cole Irvin and Rodriguez; Dean Kremer, who will throw on the Ed Smith Stadium back fields one more time before leaving camp to join Israel’s World Baseball Classic team, could replace Wells once he returns.
But Rodriguez seemingly would have to pitch his way out, and he certainly remains in the mix after handling another major league lineup.
He wasn’t the only prospect to impress Tuesday. Coby Mayo hit a 111.5 mph double, Jordan Westburg put two balls in play at 104 mph or harder, and Jackson Holliday drove in his first run of the spring with a single in Baltimore’s 7-6 loss.
“That was loud,” Hyde said of Mayo’s double. “That was a 3-iron off the left-center field wall. He’s got some serious, serious power, and that ball was squared up.”
Means takes ‘big step’
John Means isn’t among the 11 pitchers competing with Rodriguez for a rotation spot this spring, but there’s hope the left-hander will be alongside him in it soon.
Means threw 20 fastballs at 50% intensity off a half mound Monday, his latest step as he recovers from the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery he underwent in April. Baltimore’s opening day starter the past two seasons, Means isn’t expected to return to the majors until July at the earliest, but this week — he’ll throw off the half mound again Wednesday before getting on a full mound Friday — represents a significant step toward his comeback.
“Finally got some dirt on my cleats and felt like a baseball player,” Means said Tuesday morning. “This is huge. This is a big step.”
Including Rodriguez, the Orioles have several members of their rotation competition with high upside, but none of the candidates — even Gibson, the veteran of the group — have the extended run of major league success that Means has had. Means posted an ERA+ above 100, meaning above league average, each year from 2019 to 2021, representing the Orioles in the All-Star Game in his rookie year. During his 10-year career, Gibson has three above-average seasons total.
A midseason return from Means might add an ace-level pitcher to the rotation amid a playoff push, with the trade deadline offering a chance to bring in another. There’s no guarantee Means will be the same pitcher upon his return, but Hyde said he’s handled almost a year of rehabilitation “as well as you possibly can.”
“He’s been positive throughout,” Hyde said. “I know there’s a lot of frustrating days. I know that it was probably hard for him last year to watch us have some success and wanting to be a part of it, which he was a part of it, but wanted to be out there, and I’m sure that was difficult. But I think he’s handled it wonderfully.”
Another Adley accolade
Adley Rutschman didn’t catch Rodriguez’s second start, but his work behind the plate was a massive part of the step forward the Orioles took in 2022.
Baseball Savant quantified his impact in a new way Tuesday, introducing a statistic that labeled Rutschman as the best blocking catcher in baseball. In his rookie year, Rutschman led all qualified backstops in blocks above average, a metric based on how many passed balls and wild pitches he allowed compared with the number that would be expected from an average catcher.
Rutschman surrendered 25 wild pitches or passed balls in 2022, but on average, the pitches thrown to him last year would have been expected to result in 43 passed balls or wild pitches, the third most among all catchers. The two in front of him, J.T. Realmuto and Sean Murphy, both caught more than 1,200 more pitches than Rutschman overall. Rutschman’s 18 blocks above average were three more than any other catcher. Rutschman had five blocks above average on pitches with a block probability below 85%; no other catcher had more than three.
Overall, Orioles catchers ranked second with 22 blocks above average after being second worst in 2021 at minus-21, when Pedro Severino ranked last among all qualified catchers at minus-24. The Orioles were 16-24 when they promoted Rutschman last May, then played at an 89-win pace the rest of the season. On the year, Baltimore had a 96-win pace when Rutschman was the starting catcher and a 69-win pace otherwise.
James McCann, the Orioles’ new backup catcher, had minus-six blocks above average each of the past two years with the New York Mets; only seven of the 66 qualified catchers performed worse in 2022. Robinson Chirinos, Rutschman’s backup last season, tied for 11th with six blocks above average, but Baseball Savant also rated him as the worst framer among qualified catchers.
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