In Adley Rutschman’s first moments as a major leaguer, he stood behind home plate at Camden Yards and rotated, a quick visual lap to soak in the moment at the advice of other catchers in the Orioles’ system.
In searching for a turning point in Baltimore’s unexpected winning season, it’s hard to argue for anything else.
Rutschman was announced as the Most Valuable Oriole on Monday, with local media recognizing a rookie phenom whose arrival propelled Baltimore into contention. The Orioles were eight games under .500 when they promoted Rutschman on May 21 and have 66-53 since to secure their first winning season since 2016. He joined Gregg Olson in 1989 and Rodrigo López in 2002 as rookies to be named MVO.
“Right around the time Adley got here, we started playing better baseball,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We started taking better at-bats, winning more series. We had winning months of just playing good baseball and pitching well.
“He’s a really good player, and to be able to put him in the top part of the lineup, to be able to catch majority of the games, the way him and Robbie [Chirinos] handled our pitching staff I thought was incredible. To have the guy behind the plate, controlling the game, and then the at-bats he takes as well and he got a bunch of big hits late in big games. He’s been a huge difference for our team.”
Rutschman would be the first to say the Orioles’ success was a byproduct of the group as a whole, and MVO voting reflected that. Others receiving at least one top-three vote were closer Félix Bautista, outfielder Austin Hays, starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, shortstop Jorge Mateo, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, outfielder Cedric Mullins, second baseman Rougned Odor and outfielder Anthony Santander.
Told of Hyde saying the Orioles’ season changed with his arrival, Rutschman said, “The more that you value someone in your life and the more that they pour into you, the way that our coaching staff and our players do, you value those opinions so much, and to me, that means the world that he gave those kind words to me and felt that I deserved those kind words.
“That means the world to me, and I’m just fortunate to be out here and to play with all these guys.”
The 24-year-old’s humility quickly stood out to Chirinos, a 10-year veteran signed this offseason to serve as Rutschman’s backup and mentor. Taken with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, Rutschman has long been viewed as the face of Baltimore’s rebuild, and when he reached the majors, most publications considered him the top prospect in the sport.
“Sometimes you see guys like that, and they think they know everything, and he’s different,” Chirinos said. “Since Day 1, he’s asking questions, trying to understand, like, ‘Hey, I don’t know everything. I need help.’ It’s cool to see that from a young player.
“He’s gonna be here a long time, and hopefully, he’ll stay here to help this franchise win many championships.”
He’s certainly the type of player who can have that influence on both sides of the ball. Rutschman enters the final three games of a season that could see him land among the top finishers for American League Rookie of the Year hitting .251/.356/.444, with his 35 doubles — a record for a Baltimore rookie or catcher — and 63 walks pacing the team despite his late arrival, a byproduct of a right tricep strain suffered in spring training.
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Defensively, he’s endeared himself to the Orioles’ pitching staff by being himself and letting them do the same. After each inning, he meets them at the foul line for a fist bump, matching their excitement after a big out or offering words of encouragement after a rough frame. He ranks among the top 10 catchers in turning borderline pitches into strikes, according to Baseball Savant, and with him behind the plate, the Orioles have gone 49-33, with a record of 33-44 otherwise.
“I could talk for hours about him,” said outfielder Kyle Stowers, who came up the Orioles’ minor league system with Rutschman. “But honestly, in my couple of years of playing with him, the most impressive thing about him is the steadiness that he brings, behind the plate, at the plate, when he’s hitting. But also the person. He is the same guy every single day, and he brings such a steady presence to the team, but then also to us as friends. I think that’s the most impressive thing because he’s someone that deals with a lot of attention — pressure, if you will — and he handles it so well.
“He’s a different breed to handle it the way he does.”
That pressure seemed to get to Rutschman early. In his first 15 major league games, he hit .143 with a .422 OPS, striking out 15 times against four walks. But both he and the Orioles took off from there. From June 10 to Aug. 20, Rutschman increased his OPS more than 400 points by hitting .292/.403/.533 with 23 doubles, eight home runs and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 37-to-36 in 57 games played; he ranked fifth among major leaguers in Fangraph’s version of wins above replacement during that stretch, with the players ahead of him being New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani and St. Louis Cardinals infielder Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, all Most Valuable Player candidates in their respective leagues.
The Orioles had the American League’s third-best record in that span, putting Rutschman’s long-awaited ability to change the team on full display. That alone shows his worthiness for MVO.
“It’s a great honor,” Rutschman said. “I’m very fortunate to be able to play this game, to be able to come out and compete. Really, the guys around me make for this experience. I’ve said that all year. It means a lot, so I’m very thankful.”