Wednesday, February 1 2023

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

Adley Rutschman is already the best catcher in baseball.

The magic happens at least once a game — but only if you’re paying attention. 

It’s not particularly sexy or eye-catching, but on a daily basis, the Orioles‘ rookie catcher does something downright remarkable at the plate: He doesn’t swing.

Sometimes it’s a rip-curl slider that darts across the plate toward Rutschman’s back foot, zipping from strike to ball in the blink of an eye. Other times, it’s a changeup, that ever-tantalizing offering that lingers in the zone, masquerading as a heater before floating down toward the earth, out of reach. But more often than not it’s a fastball just above the strike zone, inches over the letters of his jersey.

Rutschman spits on those, too.

The 24-year-old’s superb swing decision-making and, more specifically, ability to lay off pitches beyond the strike zone has been the secret sauce, the Chemical X, behind his awesome rookie season. In fact, it’s a huge part of what makes him the best catcher in baseball mere months into his MLB career. 

Now, obviously, that’s a big claim, an inflammatory statement. J.T. Realmuto would disagree, as would Willson Contreras and Alejandro Kirk. Will Smith is sending angry fans to my house as we speak, and Sean Murphy is unfriending me on Facebook. Rutschman has only eight home runs! That’s fewer than Jose Trevino! How could he be the best catcher out there?

Because Rutschman didn’t get called up until the end of May, his raw totals lag behind those of his backstop competitors. But if you sift through the rate stats and dive into the numbers, the truth becomes crystal clear. 

Sticklers would say that you can’t just “take out” a month or a week of at-bats — that’s statistical cherry-picking, a war crime in 18 states — but if you remove Rutschman’s first 15 games as a big-leaguer, his batting line looks significantly rosier.

In those games, the highly anticipated top prospect went a horrid 8-for-56 (.143 batting average) with just four walks and no homers. He looked uncomfortable at the plate, totally out of rhythm, unable to properly time up major-league hurlers and their world-beating stuff.

But since then, Rutschman hasn’t just been the best-hitting catcher in baseball; he has been one of the most productive sluggers in the league — period. From June 10 onward, he is hitting .282/.397/.509 in 262 plate appearances and is tied for the league lead in doubles with 25. His .906 OPS over that span is 11th in MLB, behind only big names such as Goldschmidt, Judge and Arenado. And during that time, Rutschman has walked as often as he has struck out, a truly remarkable feat for a rookie.

The two main causes for concern that could limit the switch-hitter’s offensive game moving forward are his bizarre batting splits (.530 OPS as a righty against lefty pitchers) and his average exit velocity (87.9 mph, 30th percentile). There’s no doubt that Rutschman has been less dangerous and seems less comfortable from the right-handed batter’s box this season, but that can likely be chalked up to a small sample. Last year in a full minor-league season, he was actually better as a righty, posting a 1.060 OPS from that side of the dish.

Rutschman’s mediocre exit velocity is more of an issue, but he can be a valuable player without spraying lightning bolts all over the field. He’ll never rank alongside the Judges, Stantons and Oneil Cruzes of the world at the top of the exit velo leaderboards, and that’s OK. In fact, the fact that Rutschman has been this productive without obliterating the baseball is a testament to his well-rounded and unique offensive game. And you know who has an 88 mph average exit velocity? AL MVP candidate José Ramírez.

If you compare Rutschman’s full-season numbers to those of the game’s elite catchers, there’s no doubt that he belongs in the conversation regarding the league’s best backstop.

But remember, Rutschman spent the first two weeks of his big-league career scuffling mightily at the plate. It took him around 50 plate appearances to adjust to the bigs. Take a look at the catcher leaderboards since Rutschman got up to speed on June 10.

That enormous collection of walks is a product of Rutschman’s ability to not chase pitches outside the zone. Since June 10, he has swung at the seventh-lowest percentage of offerings outside the strike zone in all of baseball. Juan Soto leads the league in that category, having swung at only 19.3% of balls during that time, but Rutschman isn’t too far behind at 22.9%.

And then there’s his defense. Catcher defense is infamously difficult to track or value because there are so many unquantifiable aspects of the job. But we know that framing, the art of turning balls into strikes on the borders of the zone, is far and away the most impactful thing a catcher can do. 

According to Baseball Savant, Rutschman slots in around the 91st percentile of framers league-wide. If you watch an Orioles game for a few minutes, you’ll see why. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Rutschman sets up remarkably low to the ground, a strategy that allows him to steal a ton of pitches under the strike zone’s lower edge. 

And while throwing runners out at second base is now considered an overrated part of the gig, Rutschman happens to be great at that, too. Of the 77 catchers this season who’ve attempted to nail a runner at second, Rutschman has the ninth-fastest average “pop time” at just 1.93 seconds.

While we can’t truly know how skilled a catcher is at all the soft factors — handling a pitching staff, calling a game, etc. — reports on Rutschman from Orioles hurlers are full of praise. Since Rutschman’s debut, the team’s pitching staff has posted a 3.77 ERA, 11th in baseball and a far better mark than anyone could have anticipated.

There have been many catalysts behind Baltimore’s shocking resurgence in 2022, but Rutschman deserves a great deal of the credit. In games Rutschman has started behind the dish, the Birds are 37-22. When Rutschman has DHed or come in as a pinch-hitter, they’re 10-10. Without him, they’re 20-28. Granted, the team has hit its stride and left a slow start behind, but Rutschman’s impact has absolutely been a factor.

Rutschman is a one-of-a-kind talent, with a unique combination of Joey Votto‘s plate discipline, José Ramírez‘s penchant for doubles and Realmuto’s defensive ability. He debuted beneath an overwhelming downpour of hype and has lived up to those expectations and then some.

Rutschman is already the best catcher in the world. And the scariest part is that he’ll only get better from here. 

Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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Source: FOX Sports


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