Though he’s not the only reason that the Orioles are above .500 and still have a non-zero chance of claiming an AL Wild Card spot, Adley Rutschman has been at the center of Baltimore’s return to relevance. The top pick in the 2019 draft and the top prospect in the game entering this season has been nothing less than the Orioles’ best player. He’s already staked his claim as one of the game’s top catchers and put himself among notable historical company.
After splitting last season between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, the 24-year-old Rutschman began this season at High-A Aberdeen, not for performance reasons but because he was rehabbing a right triceps strain that he suffered in mid-March. He played five games there, starting on April 26, then three games at Bowie and 12 at Norfolk before being called up to the majors on May 21.
At the time, the Orioles were just 16–24 for the AL’s third-worst record. They were already 13 games behind the Yankees in the AL East race and 5.5 games out of the third Wild Card spot; their Playoff Odds registered at zero. Since then, they’ve gone 57–43 for the AL’s fourth-best record behind the Astros (65–35), Mariners (62–38), and Blue Jays (58–43), and ahead of the Yankees (57–46), Guardians (57–46), and Rays (55–45) — right in the middle of the six teams that would qualify for the playoffs if they began today.
The Orioles Before and After Rutschman’s arrival
|Through May 20||16||24||.400||13||3.48||4.28||.406||0.0%|
|Since May 21||57||43||.570||0.5||4.44||4.11||.535||1.4%|
* Games Behind AL East leader over that span.
The Orioles have improved markedly on both sides of the ball since Rutschman’s debut. Not all of that can be attributed to him, but when it comes to the team’s catching situation, the bar for upgrades was particularly low. Consider that Robinson Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom combined to “hit” .125/.233/.211 for a 32 wRC+ through May 20; Rutschman has replaced that by hitting a robust .251/.358/.442 for a 131 wRC+. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the change in catchers alone (which includes Chirinos’ continued work as a backup) was worth about 0.44 runs per game on the offensive side: Chirinos and Bemboom combined to produce all of five Weighted Runs Created in 40 games (0.13 per game) where Rutschman and Chirinos have produced 51 in 90 games (0.57 per game). That’ll turn your season around.
Rutschman has been a boon on the defensive side as well. The framing-inclusive version of Defensive Runs Saved, which Baseball Reference publishes but does not use in its WAR calculations, credits the new guy with being 16 runs above average, second in the majors behind only Jose Trevino; Chirinos, at 10 runs below average, is third-worst (Bemboom is right at average). By Baseball Prospectus’ measure of catcher defense, Rutschman (7.3 runs) ranks 12th in the majors, and Chirinos (-15.0) is second-to-last, with Bemboom (0.1) right at average. FanGraphs’ measure of framing runs echos those two estimates: Rutschman fourth overall at 6.3 runs, Bemboom at 0.1, and Chirinos second-to-last at -12.8. Again using a back-of-the-envelope estimate, and assuming Chirinos has been uniformly subpar across the season (we don’t have defensive splits), the upgrade in catcher defense has been worth another 0.17 runs per game. That takes us to a swing of about a 0.61 runs per game by my admittedly rough estimate — and we haven’t even begun to discuss all of those Orioles pitchers outperforming their projections. That’s a story for another day.
Though he collected a triple in his major league debut and a single the next night, Rutschman started rather slowly, hitting just .143/.226/.196 (23 wRC+) though his first 15 games. He’s ramped up to .274/.384/.494 (152 wRC+) over the past three months, good enough to place in the majors’ top 20 in that admittedly arbitrary stretch of time.
Beyond his first few weeks in the majors, only twice has Rutschman failed to produce a 100 wRC+ over a 15-game span, and even then he wasn’t far off, with a 95 wRC+ around the 45-game mark and a 98 wRC+ at the 86-game mark. In an offense that can use all the help it can get, he’s been the team’s best hitter. Having said that, it’s worth noting that the 6-foot-2 switch-hitter has struggled mightily against lefties, hitting just .164/.303/.233 (64 wRC+) without a homer in 89 PA. Against righties, he’s raked at a .276/.375/.504 (152 wRC+) clip, with 10 homers in 288 PA. His platoon splits largely went unremarked upon as a prospect, probably because he hit .350/.439/.621 in 165 PA against lefties last year, though he fell to .169/.306/.225 in 108 PA this year before being called up. If there’s an area where he needs work, it’s this.
I’ll get back to the splits, but what stands out most on the offensive side is Rutschman’s exceptional command of the strike zone, with a 24.8% chase rate and 91.2% zone contact rate; those are in the 89th and 88th percentiles, respectively. His 6.4% swinging-strike rate, meanwhile, is in the 90th percentile. Overall, he’s walking 13.5% of the time and striking out just 17.8% of the time. On the other hand, Rutschman’s contact stats are less impressive, and rather anemic when he’s hitting righty:
Adley Rutschman Statcast Splits
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Percentile-wise, only Rutschman’s barrel rate and xwOBA are above average, the latter thanks mainly to his plate discipline. One factor in those splits is that he pulls the ball quite a lot (46.3% overall) and has faced the shift on about 95% of his balls in play. He’s less pull-happy as a lefty, less prone to hitting the ball on the ground, and handles the shift pretty well. As a righty, that’s not the case:
Adley Rutschman Batted Ball Splits
|Split||Pull%||GB/FB||GB%||AVG vs Shift||SLG vs Shift||wRC+ vs Shift|
Given the coming rule change regarding defensive positioning, it will be interesting to see how much this affects Rutschman’s production; I don’t think he’ll bemoan the prohibition of infield shifts, to say the least.
With the caveat that the sample sizes for the bookend months are about half the size as the full ones even if I don’t split them by handedness, you can get an idea of Rutschman’s improvement against various pitch groups:
Rutschman struggled against fastballs initially but soon was managing an xwOBA in the neighborhood of .400 against them and lately has been even better. In all, he’s seven runs above average against four-seamers according to Statcast, and two above against sinkers. As he’s settled in, he’s improved considerably against offspeed stuff, though he’s been three runs below average against changeups overall. He’s had trouble with the curve (three runs below average) but not the slider (three above).
Even given his late arrival and the fact that there are still about three weeks to go in the season, Rutschman is third in WAR among catchers, behind only J.T. Realmuto (5.6 WAR) and Sean Murphy (4.6 WAR), and both of them have at least 100 more plate appearances. Meanwhile, he’s put together one of the great rookie seasons for a catcher:
Highest WAR by Rookie Catcher Since 1947
Blue = includes pitch-framing data
I’ve highlighted the WARs of catchers for whom we have pitch-framing data (2008 onward), making it easier if you want to limit the comparison to more contemporary catchers. It’s worth noting that Baseball Prospectus’ framing data, which goes back further than ours using Max Marchi’s retroframing methodology, credits Mauer with an additional 13.2 framing runs in 2005 and Piazza with an additional 8.9 runs in 1993 — about an extra 1.3 WAR for the former and 0.9 for the latter. Rutschman isn’t in Piazza’s league as a rookie, but he’s dead even with Posey in less playing time and not that far behind the framing-inclusive measure of Mauer, who had about 47% more playing time. Piazza is already in Cooperstown, and the other two should be once they become eligible. I’m not suggesting that Rutschman — who’s about the same age as the rookie Piazza was (both were in their age-24 seasons), about a year older than Posey, and about two years older than Mauer — is headed to the Hall of Fame just yet, but as points of comparison go, he could hardly do better.
As for whether Rutschman will take home this year’s AL Rookie of the Year honors, he trails Julio Rodríguez in WAR (4.5 to 4.0), but the Mariners’ center fielder has about a 40% advantage in playing time and is going to wind up with more impressive offensive numbers; he already has 25 homers, 24 steals, and a 141 wRC+. I suspect he’ll take home the hardware, but given Rutschman’s impact on the Orioles’ season, they ought to be quite pleased with the way their top draft pick from three years ago is panning out.