This part of the summer is seen as perhaps the most difficult of a major league season.
The dog days of July and August, with the most oppressive weather of the year, is when small bumps and bruises can turn into larger problems.
“Everybody’s dealing with a lot of things right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s the middle of August, and these guys have played a lot of baseball.”
But as the summer wears on, the Orioles’ youngest pitcher is far from wearing down. Grayson Rodriguez is throwing harder now than at any point in the majors this season, even as the 23-year-old continues to blow past his single-season high in innings pitched.
Rodriguez, the club’s top pitching prospect entering the season, shot up prospect lists during his minor league career thanks largely to his high-90s mph fastball. He displayed similar velocity during his first stint in the big leagues in April and May, but his fastball’s had even more heat over the past month. He averaged 98.9 mph in his start Monday against the San Diego Padres, touched 100 mph five times and topped out at 101 mph — tied for the hardest pitch of his MLB career.
“It’s always been kind of the same story where like the velo and everything starts increasing as the season goes on,” Rodriguez said. “Definitely my hardest numbers aren’t at the beginning, they’ve been at the end. So we’re just going to try to keep that going and stay healthy.”
His increased velocity — about 2 mph harder than to begin the season — is a welcome sign for an Orioles team closely monitoring the workload of its prized right-hander. At 122 1/3 innings between the majors and minors, Rodriguez has already surpassed his single-season high of 103 from his 2021 minor league campaign. If he remains in the rotation for the rest of the regular season, he’ll likely start seven more games for a total of 31 between Norfolk and Baltimore — putting his projected innings total at around 160, not counting the postseason.
That workload management for Rodriguez and the rest of the Orioles’ young starters — Tyler Wells, Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish, all of whom also have surpassed or are approaching their high-water marks in innings — is a big reason the club recently switched to a six-man rotation.
The elongated system has its drawbacks, but it could also play a pivotal role in keeping those arms fresh with extra days off between outings and, if the system remains in place throughout the season, one or two fewer starts down the stretch.
Rodriguez said it hasn’t taken time to get accustomed to the six-man, given that is how minor league teams manage their rotations.
“Going on the six-man really doesn’t affect me much,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something I’ve been doing for a while, so it doesn’t really have any change on me. It’s the same schedule I’ve been dealing with since 2018 when I was drafted. The first taste of the five-man in the big leagues was the one thing that was different. I felt like we handled it pretty well, but going back on the six-man is pretty normal for me.”
He said the benefit of a six-man rotation is it provides an “extra day to play with” — giving the starter the choice to use it for extra throwing, more strength training, recovery or rest.
Bradish, the rotation’s best and the Orioles’ starter Sunday against the Oakland Athletics, has pitched 126 2/3 innings this year (all but five in the majors) and is a few starts away from his single-season high of 145 1/3 innings from last year. In his second season, he’s also familiar with the six-man routine. He said the different schedule allows him to take a second day to focus on treatment and rest.
“It definitely helps with the recovery part of it,” Bradish said.
He also said as the season has progressed he’s altered the amount he pitches in between starts.
“Early in the season, I was throwing 35 to 40-pitch sessions in between starts,” Bradish said. “Now that’s down to about 15 or 20 as the season’s gone on.”
Hyde said it can be a tough balancing act between providing his starters more rest versus maintaining their routines.
“I think that’s a little bit of our concerns is that they are in pretty strict routines with a five-man rotation, and normally when you get an off day, you get an extra day. Normally, you don’t get two extra days, so some of our guys are getting two extra days, which is what we want,” he said. “They just have to adjust their routines with that — work with the strength coaches as well as the pitching guys to work with these guys on changing what their side session would be between starts, maybe add another touch-and-feel [session] just because there’s so much time between starts.
“That’s something we’ve been monitoring very closely.”
But for Rodriguez, he believes the work he did in the offseason has prepared him for the grind of his first big league season.
“The offseason definitely gives you a chance to build your body for the wear and tear that you’re going to endure during the season,” he said.
Since averaging 96.1 mph on his four-seamer in April, Rodriguez’s fastball has ticked up each month. He averaged 97.9 mph in July after he rejoined the rotation following a stint in Triple-A, and in three August starts his heater has sat at 98.5 mph. Only two starting pitchers with more than six starts — the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Bobby Miller and Cincinnati Reds’ Hunter Greene — have an average fastball velocity above 98.5 mph.
Rodriguez’s success is often tied to his fastball. When he was hit hard in May, he had poor fastball command and thus less confidence in the pitch. But since his return, Rodriguez has recorded a 3.03 ERA while allowing just 24 hits in 35 2/3 innings.
“It definitely builds your confidence,” Rodriguez said. “In the big leagues, the higher the velo number, the harder chance it has to get hit. I’m really not trying to pay too much attention to the velo stuff. But it’s nice to have it.”