As many of the young players who trailed him for the status of the game’s top prospect began the season in the majors, Adley Rutschman was forced to wait.
But nearly eight months after suffering a right tricep strain that delayed his major league debut, the Orioles’ catcher more than managed to catch up to that group. The 24-year-old was named a finalist for American League Rookie of the Year on Monday.
He’s nominated alongside Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez — the presumptive favorite — and Cleveland Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, Rutschman’s college teammate at Oregon State. Both made their team’s season-opening rosters.
The final ordering of Rutschman, Rodríguez and Kwan is significant not only for determining who’s named AL Rookie of the Year. Because of his spring training injury, Rutschman did not spend enough days in the majors to earn a full year of service time and is thus not eligible for free agency until after the 2028 season.
But the league’s new collective bargaining agreement provides a year of service time to players who finish in the top two of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voting, meaning Rutschman would instead become a free agent after 2027 should he place first or second. Because each of the other candidates spent the full year in the majors, this provision won’t affect them, though the CBA also included a bonus pool that awards $750,000 to each league’s Rookie of the Year and $500,000 to the runners-up.
In Baseball America’s preseason top 100 prospects list, Rutschman was ranked No. 1 ahead of Rodríguez and Kansas City Royals infielder Bobby Witt Jr., the second overall pick behind Rutschman in the 2019 draft. With first baseman Spencer Torkelson, Rutschman’s successor as the No. 1 pick in 2020, also making Detroit’s initial roster, three of the game’s top five prospects made their debuts on opening day, as did eventual AL Rookie of the Year candidates Kwan and Jeremy Peña, the Houston Astros’ shortstop who went on to win MVP honors for both the American League Championship Series and World Series. Voting was conducted at the end of the regular season.
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Rutschman, meanwhile, spent much of April rehabbing at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Florida before a monthlong climb up their minor league system. But soon after reaching the majors on May 21, he began to establish himself as not only one of the sport’s top rookies, but also one of its best players. Across a 10-week stretch beginning June 10, the only hitters to rank higher in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement were New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge and St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Despite his late arrival, Rutschman ended the year tied Rodríguez for the best fWAR among rookies and led the Orioles and AL catchers in that category. Only six position players — each an All-Star — performed better than Rutschman in that metric after his debut, showing the impact he had in diminished time relative to his rookie counterparts.
Of the aforementioned five rookies who started the year in the majors, only Torkelson, demoted midseason because of struggles, appeared in fewer games than Rutschman. Of the remaining four, Rutschman trailed only one in on-base percentage (Kwan), slugging percentage and OPS (both Rodríguez) with his 35 doubles leading them all and breaking Cal Ripken Jr.’s record for an Orioles rookie. With a premier understanding of the strike zone, Rutschman walked in 13.8% of his plate appearances, with none of the other candidates over 10%, while he joined Kwan as the only ones who struck out fewer than 20% of the time.
Rutschman also had an immense influence defensively. Manager Brandon Hyde — announced Monday as an AL Manager of the Year candidate — and pitchers consistently praised Rutschman’s game-calling and pitch-blocking abilities, as well as his intangibles such as leadership and energy. Despite playing the 19th most innings behind the plate, he ranked second among catchers in defensive runs saved.
Eight games below .500 when Rutschman was promoted, the Orioles went 67-55 with him on the roster and 50-34 when he was their starting catcher, a 96-win pace for a full season. His apparent influence on the team led to his selection as Most Valuable Oriole, becoming only the third rookie to win the honor, while he was also a finalist for the AL Silver Slugger for catchers and the Major League Baseball Players Association’s AL Most Outstanding Rookie award.
The latter award went to Rodríguez, the third rookie in major league history to record 25 home runs and 25 steals. Kwan was a Gold Glove outfielder for the Guardians and hit .298 with a .772 OPS.
Rutschman would be the seventh Oriole and first since Gregg Olson in 1989 to be the AL Rookie of the Year. Left-hander John Means finished second in voting in 2019.