The future is now for Orioles rookie Adley Rutschman: 'Scary how good he's going to be'
BALTIMORE – It is a special time in the Baltimore Orioles clubhouse, where, so it seems, every day brings another vaunted prospect for his major league debut, and baseball’s most surprising team just keeps winning, in defiant pursuit of a playoff berth one year after losing 110 games.
Clubhouse attendants scurry about so teammates can autograph and present commemorative lineup cards after a player’s first game. Family members hurriedly scramble to make travel plans and meet their children for their moment. And externally, pundits and fans alike loudly wonder just how a club arrived so far ahead of schedule, with such a limitless future ahead.
The answer has never really changed.
On May 21, Adley Rutschman made his major league debut, a moment highly anticipated since the Orioles selected him first overall in 2019, the second of three full seasons in which they lost 115, 108 and 110 games. He was the first draft pick under new general manager Mike Elias, whose bold franchise remake startled longtime fans as the major league product continued to stagnate, only heightening expectations that Rutschman, a switch-hitting catcher, might be the savior.
On that weekend in May, it was Rutschman summoned to his minor league manager’s office to receive word he was Baltimore-bound, Rutschman who paused before the top of the first inning to gaze around Camden Yards before taking his spot behind home plate, and Rutschman who received multiple standing ovations from the crowd.
The moment was even more pivotal than the most hopeful fan could have imagined.
In the nearly four months since, the Orioles have been the best team in the American League East, their 54-37 record trailing only Houston and Seattle in the AL as they moved within two games of a wild card berth. Certainly, there’s numerous factors involved in Baltimore’s rise, most notably the vast improvement of a pitching staff featuring one of the game’s most dominant bullpens.
Yet it is Rutschman whose influence runs through the entire roster, as he’s earned the trust and respect of older pitchers behind the plate, while his peerless plate discipline out of the No. 2 slot fortifies the lineup.
Most of all, though, he has proven to be every bit the franchise player the team hoped he’d be, from coaxing just a little more out of veteran pitchers to providing a template that his fellow prospects can follow on their way to Baltimore.
“Let’s put it this way: Ever since the front office came into place, their first pick was Adley Rutschman,” says rookie outfielder Kyle Stowers, who was taken in the second round of that 2019 draft and debuted last month. “And when the first overall pick is the most selfless guy, that sets the bar right where it needs to be for the rest of us. It’s nothing that he has to say to us. It’s just by him being who he is, having the kind of character he has, it’s easy for guys like me to follow.
“The coolest thing I can say about Adley is, if you didn’t know baseball, you would have no clue that he was a first overall pick, one of the top prospects and now is one of the best players in all of baseball. He’s just that good of a person. He’s got a low ego, he’s a great teammate and the guy just wants to win.
“He’s one of my best friends. I’ll let you guys speak about him as a player.”
Tip of the iceberg
Despite joining the Orioles seven weeks into the season, Rutschman leads them in Wins Above Replacement, at 3.6, and ranks third among rookie position players. Since the All-Star break, he’s second among AL hitters in walks and fourth in on-base percentage (.411). Across the major leagues, his 13.8% walk rate ranks in the 96th percentile, his whiff rate in the 87th percentile, his chase rate 83rd. His pop time of 1.93 ranks in the 83rd percentile while his pitch framing is in the 88th.
For all the statistical soup that could quantify his impact, perhaps the two most relevant are his 31 extra-base hits and 40 walks in his first 70 games. No catcher has ever done that, and just 11 major league players have done so since 1900, according to the Elias Stats Bureau.
It paints the picture of a highly disciplined hitter who, at 24, will still grow into his power. And the Orioles are done trying to temper expectations for the next six seasons.
“We’re watching a young player that’s going to be really special,” says manager Brandon Hyde, whose club is now 71-61 and 10 games over .500 for the first time since 2017. “From the defensive side, the way he handles our staff, his preparation, his in-game adjustments - everything is off the charts.
“And then the at-bats are so competitive. He’s going to be… a really good hitter. Just because he understands the strike zone and when he starts piling up at-bats, it’s pretty scary how good he’s going to be.”
‘The perfect one’
When the final, 115-loss season of the Dan Duquette era in Baltimore gifted Elias’s regime the chance to pick first in the 2019 draft, it was a relatively simple choice. After leading Oregon State to a 2018 national title and batting .411 with a 1.327 OPS in 2019, Rutschman was a consensus No. 1, with a small faction of pundits allowing that prep shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. might be the call.
In hindsight, there might not have been a more ideal player to usher in a new era.
Elias, hired away from the Houston Astros, where he was the assistant GM, brought a gaggle of colleagues who’d helped transform the Astros into a data-driven dynasty. It was time to drag the Orioles out of the stone ages.
It didn’t hurt that Rutschman already possessed elite plate discipline. Yet he’s perhaps even more adept at preparation, parsing data and processing it with teammates and within a game.
“Adley seems to fit right in with that game plan,” says veteran starter Jordan Lyles, brought in to add inning-eating capability and experience to an Orioles rotation that currently features no other arm with more than 34 career starts. “A lot of young guys grew up in this new phase, but Adley’s the perfect one to have in the clubhouse and be able to use those extra sources.
“It’s very tough to do, but he’s had a good grasp on a lot of the processing, reading swings, game-planning. He’s been tremendous.”
Rutschman’s information crunching is a form of both selflessness and self-care, determined to get a feel for his pitchers while also maximizing his own performance. It can make for long days at Camden Yards, but the output is tough to argue with.
“I think that’s why you see the consistency show up because he’s prepared, night in and night out,” says outfielder Austin Hays. “He does a lot of video work with our sabermetrics guys, he does all his one-on-one meetings with his pitchers and is one of the first guys in the cage each day.
“When you prepare at a high level, you perform at a high level.”
In Baltimore’s organization, that goes beyond studying heat maps and video. The club’s hitting coaches and coordinators have developed a points system for plate appearances, crediting hitters for anything from good pitch-taking to appropriately aggressive swings and making sure they aren’t demerited for dubious calls from an umpire.
Hitters receive a score after every game, letting them know what they did or didn’t do well, which reinforces process over outcome and can make an 0-for-11 skid feel less like a black hole. It’s one of many techniques taught throughout their minor leagues so that when players arrive in Baltimore, it’s second nature.
“That’s something that was different in the past when I was coming up in the minor leagues – you were kind of on your own as far as preparing,” says Hays, who debuted in 2017. “The information was relayed a bit differently. You’re trying to adjust to your hitting coaches. This regime – it’s all the same.”
The payoff is evident. Friday night, Rutschman was granted his first day off since Aug. 17 – he serves as DH when not catching – but Hyde summoned him to pinch hit with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a tie game. Oakland reliever Domingo Acevedo threw him six pitches.
Rutschman did not swing at any of them – including two called strikes that might have strayed out of the strike zone.
Walk. Go-ahead run scores. Orioles win.
“A big tribute to the coaching staff, the hitting coaches, just one of those things we practice a lot,” says Rutschman, “and so we try to make it a big focus on swinging at pitches in the zone.”
Or, as Hyde put it: “To take that sort of at-bat shows you how mature he is for such a young player.”
Yet with every mature plate appearance and every cherub that shows up at Camden Yards, Rutschman is less and less the young guy.
A pivot point
Someday, the Orioles may look back on the 2019 draft as one of the most pivotal weeks in franchise history. After selecting Rutschman first overall, Baltimore selected Alabama high school shortstop Gunnar Henderson 42nd overall and Stanford’s Stowers with the 71st pick.
Barely three years later, Stowers made his first start at Camden Yards and hit a two-out, two-strike game-tying ninth-inning homer for his first major league longball. Henderson, 21, homered in his second major league at-bat Wednesday at Cleveland and doubled twice Friday in his first game at Camden Yards.
It’s enough to make Rutschman’s May debut seem like ancient history, and he downplays the notion he paved the way for this loaded farm system.
“It’s really cool to see your friends do well,” says Rutschman. “That’s the biggest thing. If they want to ask me about anything, they can. But they’ve done a good job so far.”
Unsurprisingly, those who have played with Rutschman say he’s a bit more proactive than that, and reflects an upbringing that focused on process and humility, rather than driving hard toward results.
Oakland A’s catcher Shea Langeliers was his teammate on Team USA’s 2018 collegiate national team, but Rutschman arrived about halfway through their monthlong camp and season thanks to Oregon State’s College World Series title. Yet Rutschman quietly worked the room and made the squad his own.
“Phenomenal baseball player. Really good person,” says Langeliers, chosen by Atlanta eight picks after Rutschman in the 2019 draft. “He’s one of those guys where everybody likes him, everybody likes to be around him. He meshes really well with other people.
“It’s like he’s got that really good catcher’s mentality of how we need to work with pitchers, but you bring that into the team camaraderie aspect. And everything blends together well.”
Says White Sox slugger Andrew Vaughn, a collegiate rival at Cal and another Team USA alum: “I take that back to his family. Mom and Dad are awesome. Got to spend time with him and them, and he’s just a good person. You can tell that. He’s not faking it.”
Stowers says that above all, relationships matter most to Rutschman, and his good vibes are almost contagious in the organization, in that fellow prospects will see the budding franchise player’s unassuming mien and welcoming nature and think, “Oh, OK, this is what the best players are like.”
It’s how Rutschman can get away with his after-innings ritual of dapping up an otherwise salty pitcher after they exit the mound. Or how he can spread his arms wide and sink into mammoth closer Felix Bautista’s arms after a save, not unlike Magic Johnson bear-hugging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after winning his NBA debut, 82-game season be damned.
Otherwise, Rutschman keeps it level. He’s a big movie-quote guy, teammates say, and Rutschman says he prefers anything from the Will Ferrell canon or 2000s-era Stepbrothers-type fare. Basic stuff, it would appear.
Yet Lyles points to another anecdote that speaks to the catcher’s cool – a spring training rookie talent show where Rutschman and some cohorts donned workout gear and recreated what one might loosely call an old Jane Fonda workout video. The commitment was total.
“He put his foot on the gas, he didn’t shy away from it and he was ready to go,” remembers Lyles. “He knows how to take jokes, give jokes out. All around he’s the real deal.”
Rutschman said he was “absolutely” nervous to perform in front of older teammates. Nobody would have known it, though.
“That’s the goal,” he says.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Adley Rutschman lives up to the hype for surprising Baltimore Orioles