What’s Sweeter Than Having One Ace? Having Two.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, my colleague Michael Baumann (the one who doesn’t throw 97 mph) mused that the Orioles’ having an ace was a pretty sweet thing. I can’t help but concur with that thesis, considering I’ve long been saying that one of Baltimore’s missing ingredients was an inarguable no. 1 starter. Nor can I quibble with anything related to Corbin Burnes; I picked him to win the AL Cy Young, after all, and his debut with the O’s was a masterpiece of cruelty to hitters. But what if they already had an ace? Grayson Rodriguez spent a drizzly Saturday doing his best to show why that may be the case.

One can argue that I chickened out a bit about Grayson Rodriguez a few weeks ago when I did not pick him as one of my pitcher breakout choices. In truth, I kind of felt it was cheating since he’d already flashed some utter dominance late last year when he had a 2.58 ERA and a 2.76 FIP in 76 2/3 second-half innings, similar to the star-making stretch that Tarik Skubal enjoyed. ZiPS didn’t go all-in on Rodriguez in the preseason, mainly because there’s always a great deal of downside risk in a young pitcher (or an old pitcher or a pitcher in his prime or a pitcher in a box or with a fox or in a house or with a mouse).

After a rather middling spring, I was eager to watch Rodriguez in a regular season game this year to see how he continued to progress with the things that stymied him when he was first called up in 2023. The first few months of his rookie season, he had a kitchen sink approach, just throwing out all five of his pitches (fastball, changeup, curveball, slider, and cutter) with the apparent hope of baffling major league hitters with variety. Instead, hitters would wait him out, an effective strategy; he was throwing just over 50% first-pitch strikes at the time of his demotion in late May. The result was too many walks and too many at-bats that ended with a batter waiting for something to crush and then proceeding to do exactly that.

Upon returning to the majors after the All-Star break, Rodriguez’s portfolio had gotten another passthrough at the copy desk. The cutter, against which opposing hitters had slugged nearly .900 through May, was almost entirely edited out, and the focus was on primarily getting the fastball-change combination working before mixing in the curves and sliders. Rodriguez walked as many batters in the second half as he did in the first half despite throwing almost twice the innings. The culprit there was the reversal in his first-strike rate; he went from 54.5% in his first stint to 66.8% after his return. To contextualize the significance of that change, 54.5% would have been the second-worst seasonal number among the 44 ERA title qualifiers in 2023, while 66.8% would have been the sixth-best first-pitch strike percentage.

His first start of 2024 was a lot like his second-half starts last year. Rodriguez got off to 0-1 counts as if it were child’s play (77%) and heavily relied on his fastball and changeup. He enticed Angels hitters to swing at nearly two-thirds of his changeups — and they whiffed against 60% of them. The curveball had the identical contact percentage. The end result? Six innings, one run on four hits, one walk, one home runs, and nine strikeouts, matching his major-league high from a start last April against the Tigers.

The only real blemish to his record came in the fourth inning on Saturday, when he threw a first-pitch slider/cutter to Taylor Ward, who casually clubbed it for a solo home run. Rodriguez’s offering — which the broadcast tracked as a slider and Statcast deemed a cutter — did not have the sharpness of his main three pitches, and the fact that there was some disagreement about what pitch it actually was should tell us something about its ineffectiveness. Whatever you call it — and we won’t be combining the two names here — three of the seven he threw were put into play with exit velocities above 100 mph.

Now, the Angels are no doubt one of the weaker teams in baseball and Rodriguez’s start would have been more impressive against the Dodgers or Astros, but it was a continuation of what he accomplished in the second half last year.

So, what’s next for Rodriguez?

Compared to other low-payroll teams, the Orioles have not done a good job signing their best young players to long-term contracts. In fact, no player in Baltimore has a guaranteed deal beyond this season except for Félix Bautista, who’ll make $1 million in 2025. I’d argue that the two best starting pitchers the O’s have developed in the last 30 years were Mike Mussina and Kevin Gausman. The team low-balled Mussina after he had previously taken a hometown discount and the latter, well, they never really figured out what to do with him. Why not get serious about offering Rodriguez a long-term contract before he gets really expensive?

Let’s go back to the preseason projections. Even with ZiPS not fully on board with Rodriguez’s performance in the second half, the long-term projection and the projection percentiles were still about what you’d expect them to be for a talented young pitcher with massive upside.

ZiPS Projection – Grayson Rodriguez
2024 7 6 4.07 28 28 141.7 126 64 19 44 153 101 2.0
2025 7 6 3.98 28 28 142.3 125 63 18 42 149 103 2.1
2026 7 6 3.99 28 28 146.7 129 65 19 41 150 103 2.2
2027 7 7 4.02 29 29 147.7 129 66 19 41 149 102 2.2
2028 7 7 4.06 29 29 148.7 131 67 19 40 147 101 2.1
2029 7 7 4.15 28 28 145.3 130 67 19 39 140 99 1.9
2030 7 6 4.12 27 27 139.7 125 64 18 38 133 99 1.8
2031 6 6 4.19 26 26 133.3 119 62 17 37 126 98 1.7

ZiPS Percentiles – Grayson Rodriguez
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 148 2.76 4.6
90% 134 3.06 3.9
80% 117 3.49 3.1
70% 110 3.74 2.7
60% 105 3.91 2.3
50% 101 4.07 2.0
40% 96 4.25 1.7
30% 91 4.49 1.3
20% 87 4.69 1.0
10% 81 5.03 0.5
5% 78 5.25 0.1

ZiPS suggests an eight-year, $57 million contract to buy out two years of free agency, and I think given the upside, you can certainly go higher than that. Just for fun, I took the ZiPS updated projection (with his first start) and the 70th percentile projection for the 2024 season and re-ran the long-term projection to get a not-too-aggressive estimate of what it could look like.

ZiPS Projection – Grayson Rodriguez (70th Percentile)
2025 10 7 3.40 31 31 169.3 149 64 19 49 175 120 3.6
2026 10 6 3.39 30 30 167.3 146 63 19 46 172 121 3.6
2027 10 6 3.40 29 29 166.7 147 63 20 45 168 120 3.5
2028 9 7 3.49 29 29 162.7 144 63 19 42 160 118 3.4
2029 9 7 3.55 29 29 162.3 146 64 20 42 157 115 3.2
2030 9 6 3.61 28 28 157.0 144 63 20 41 148 113 3.0
2031 8 6 3.66 26 26 147.7 137 60 19 39 137 112 2.8
2032 8 6 3.67 24 24 139.7 130 57 17 38 128 112 2.5

There’s a 30% chance that his projection next year will be as good as this or even better. A 3.6 WAR projection for a pitcher is nothing to scoff at; it would have ranked 11th in the ZiPS projections for pitchers this season.

The new O’s owner, David Rubinstein, has excited a lot of people in Baltimore with how he’s talked about the team. But even better than words would be action, and what better way to show a change from the late-stage Angelos era than to actually ensure that one of the team’s best young talents stays in Charm City past his free agent eligibility? It doesn’t necessarily have to be Grayson Rodriguez, but the team should consider him a serious option for an extension. If he develops like scouts and computers believe, he’ll surely be worth it.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 month ago

By this logic, they have 3! Bradish is better than Grayson, when he comes back that will be a heck of a 1-2-3 rotation punch to lose by a score of 2-1 with.

1 month ago
Reply to  markakis21

I would not call Bradish “better”. Higher floor, for sure, but the ceiling is lower also. G-Rod’s strikeout upside is truly great. The gap between Bradish’s actual and expected ERA and his SIERA was nearly a full run last year.

Still, that is a surprisingly fearsome top of the rotation.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

If he comes back to where he was (a big assumption), Bradish is probably as good or better than Rodriguez. Bradish was a top-30 pitcher by xERA and SIERA last year (min: 100 innings). He’s probably a 3 and not a 2 but Rodriguez would have to hit his 80th percentile outcome in the ZiPS projection above to be that kind of pitcher.

But, yes, there is definitely more upside with Rodriguez long-term.

1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Fair, but the numbers Grayson Rodriguez put up in the second half were identical to Bradish’s season by xFIP and superior by SIERA, with better surface numbers. ZiPS is down on him because of his first half, before he made adjustments. It’s also a big assumption to say he’ll sustain that production, but if we’re assuming for one, I think it’s fair to do so for both.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

But if Bradish also hits his 80th percentile he’d still be better. For whatever reason I think of Rodriguez as having more upside, but the projections don’t say that.