Adley Rutschman is for real. That might be enough to make an unfathomable Orioles playoff run real, too

On the morning of June 11, the Baltimore Orioles were 24-35. A second straight loss to the Kansas City Royals had sunk them to a season-worst 11 games under .500. If there was excitement around the team, it was mostly focused on Adley Rutschman, the catcher viewed by most as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, who had debuted two weeks prior.

The catcher position involves a notoriously difficult learning curve for young players, and despite the Orioles slow-playing his ascent to the majors — which reeked of service time manipulation — Rutschman appeared to be taking his lumps. Through 16 games, he was batting .153. It was all understandable, the usual territory of a rebuilding team and its future stars.

But as it turns out, the future came quickly.

Since June 11, the Orioles are 37-22. They have rocketed out of irrelevance and into the AL playoff race, jockeying with the Tampa Bay Rays for the final wild-card spot. They enter Friday 2 1/2 games back after being brought to heel in an almost-perfect game by the Rays’ Drew Rasmussen.

And even when they reached the All-Star break at .500, the idea of really competing for a playoff berth still felt more like fantasy than reality, an illusion that would disappear when you walked closer. This is a team that was projected to lose 100 games. Baltimore GM Mike Elias disappointed many by acknowledging the unlikelihood of a playoff run when he dealt away DH mainstay Trey Mancini and closer Jorge Lopez at the trade deadline.

The illusion hasn’t disappeared though. Over the weekend, Elias had to acknowledge a reality that the Orioles are squarely in the playoff hunt, reversing course from two weeks ago and telling MLB Network Radio, “I think we’re going to get into the playoffs.”

That confidence is probably on the other end of the GM-speak spectrum; Baseball Prospectus gives them a 27.4% chance of reaching October. But the Orioles have played well enough to require real examination despite a roster pocked with holes or wafer-thin major-league filler. When you look for the substance under this winning stretch, there is one very real thing, a development that can’t be ignored even if the Orioles drop out of the 2022 picture: Rutschman has rapidly turned into an elite player, more capable than most individual stars of lifting an entire team’s fortunes because of his perch behind the plate.

Star Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman (right) consults with pitcher Nick Vespi as they walk to the dugout after an inning. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Star Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman (right) consults with pitcher Nick Vespi as they walk to the dugout after an inning. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Adley Rutschman has turned into an elite player

Since June 11, the day the Orioles started climbing toward their current double-take-inducing place in the standings, Rutschman has been a top-five position player in baseball.

In the 59 games over that stretch, he’s batting .277/.395/.503. He has walked exactly as many times (33) as he has struck out — territory occupied pretty much exclusively by superstar-level hitters. It’s like if Alex Bregman was also a great catcher.

And Rutschman is indeed playing great at catcher, with a stellar defensive pedigree shining through. He ranks firmly in the upper echelon of framers, which is especially notable given he has partially absorbed the playing time of the majors’ worst framer in 2022, Robinson Chirinos. A lot more goes into gauging receiving (or framing) talent, but on a base level, Rutschman has gotten called strikes on 50% of borderline calls where Chirinos has been getting strikes on 40% of them. Over the course of a season, that really adds up.

Defensive impact is really tough to quantify confidently, so don’t give Rutschman credit for all of this, but the Baltimore pitching staff has also been far better since he arrived. In line with the improved framing, they have the third-lowest (read: third-best) walk rate in MLB since his debut. From his earliest days in the majors, it was hard to miss Rutschman’s involvement with his pitchers. Long hailed as a vocal leader — during his time as a top college player at Oregon State and in the minors — you’ll almost always spot Rutschman trotting to meet his pitcher between the mound and the dugout at the end of each inning.

Rutschman's rise means it's time for Orioles to compete

One player doesn’t make or break a team. Just ask the Angels. There are some players who seem to function as signals, though. They flip the light from red to green, kick the car out of cruise and into overdrive.

It would be nice to think of that as an innate rah-rah aura, but it’s probably has more to do with the same value-obsessed calculations that kept Rutschman in the minors until May and sent Mancini to Houston. Elias, the Orioles GM who previously worked as the No. 2 during the Astros rebuild, is executing a similar plan. You can view Rutschman as the Carlos Correa character in this sequel.

As soon as Rutschman’s clock started — three years until he starts getting expensive, seven years until he hits free agency or at least has the leverage of the market — the Orioles’ window began. The baseball world at large has viewed Rutschman as a “complete, franchise-altering prospect” for years. FanGraphs called him a “nearly-perfect prospect” this spring. With Rutschman playing like this, and the Orioles as close as they are, even the coldest, most cynical way of looking at baseball says it’s time to rustle up the rest of the pieces and at least make an effort at a playoff berth.

That’s why Elias was on the radio this weekend talking about making the playoffs, about his openness to bringing up third base prospect Gunnar Henderson — who some consider the current most talented player in the minors — and about spending this winter. It's why D.L. Hall, a talented pitching prospect, made his debut this week and will reportedly take a quick return trip to the minors to transition to the bullpen for the stretch run.

There’s no way around the fact that the Orioles' front office didn't (and doesn’t) think 2022 is as important or as promising as 2024 and 2025. But their moves say they're becoming more and more convinced that something special is possible, that there is some reality underneath the inexplicable. And that started with Rutschman.