Adley Rutschman’s past two months have lived up to the hefty billing the top prospect carried to the majors. A continuation over the season’s final two months might not only propel the Orioles to the playoffs, but also earn the rookie phenom some hardware.
Despite a delayed arrival to the majors and a slow start once he got there, Rutschman has thrust himself into the race for American League Rookie of the Year. While several other candidates have been with their teams since opening day, Rutschman’s impact on and performance with Baltimore since joining the roster in late May have made him a clear contender.
Two months ago Wednesday, the Orioles’ 24-year-old catcher was off to a 5-for-56 start to his major league career. He entered Thursday having hit .292/.410/.516 in the games since, walking more than he’s struck out and ranking fifth in the majors in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement.
As Rutschman has taken off, so too have the Orioles. They entered Thursday 34-17 since June 11, the best record in the American League during that time. Eight games below .500 when Rutschman was promoted, Baltimore is 42-28 with him on the roster.
“When Adley came up, he didn’t have the numbers or the success right away, but he would still take really good at-bats,” Orioles starting pitcher Jordan Lyles said. “You could see that from just being around. You knew what we see of Adley now is what was going to come because he was taking such good at-bats, taking pitches and working counts.”
Even if Rutschman does not win AL Rookie of the Year, a strong close to his freshman year could have a lasting impact in Baltimore. Under Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, the top two finishers in voting in each league will be awarded a year of major league service time. While many of his top competitors for the honor made their respective teams’ opening day rosters and thus will spend the requisite time in the majors regardless, Rutschman didn’t make his debut until late May because of a right tricep strain suffered early in spring training. Currently due to become a free agent after the 2028 season, a top-two finish would accelerate when he’s due to reach free agency by a year.
With his performance of late, Rutschman has positioned himself for that recognition. His primary competition comes from fellow position players in Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez, Houston Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña and Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. — drafted second overall behind Rutschman in 2019 — with Minnesota right-hander Joe Ryan among a group of others in the mix.
Of the four hitters, Rutschman entered Wednesday with the best on-base percentage (.366, with only Rodríguez also above .300), walk rate (13.6%, the only one over 7%) and strikeout rate (16.7%, the only one under 23%), also leading the group in counting stats such as doubles and walks despite playing at least 25 fewer games than the others. He narrowly trails Rodríguez, the front-runner currently on the injured list for a wrist issue, in OPS, all-encompassing offensive stat weighted runs created plus and FanGraphs’ WAR. Rutschman paces the quartet in that metric since May 21, when he made his debut.
A major reason is the impact he’s made defensively. Among catchers who have caught at least 1,000 borderline pitches as defined by Baseball Savant, Rutschman’s called strike rate of nearly 50% on such offerings is the third-best among catchers. He’s tied for second among all backstops in defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs, yet another cumulative stat reflecting his impact even with 100 fewer innings behind the plate than other well-regarded catchers. Of that rookie quartet, only Peña has more defensive runs saved than Rutschman, having played over 300 more innings in the field.
“His game-calling is excellent,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s one of the best blockers in the league already. He’s one of the best framers in the league already. The way he controls the pitching staff, his tempo, the energy behind the plate, the positive reinforcement. The pitchers know that he’s trying to get them through their innings.
“The whole package. He does a great job.”
As effective as Rutschman is at stealing strikes as a catcher, he’s perhaps more capable of not giving them away as a hitter. On pitches outside of the strike zone, he swings at fewer than a quarter, while Rodríguez, Peña and Witt are all between 37% and 39%, according to FanGraphs. When Rutschman does swing at any pitch, he misses only 6.5% of the time — ranking in the top 10% of major league hitters with at least 250 plate appearances — while Witt is the best of the other three with a swinging strike rate of 11.8%.
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None of the other candidates have blended offensive and defensive impact in quite the manner Rutschman has. But he could be hampered by his lack of major league playing time relative to them, arriving almost two months into the season. His five home runs were the fewest of the foursome by 10 entering Wednesday, though he’s caught up in most other metrics.
It’s possible the ongoing playoff race between Rodríguez’s Mariners and Rutschman’s Orioles swings the honor in either’s favor. Both players have turned their teams into playoff contenders, with Rutschman expected to have an immediate impact in Baltimore but not necessarily help put the club in a postseason position in a matter of weeks.
Rutschman, ever team-oriented, would likely prefer a playoff berth over Rookie of the Year. With the way the Orioles’ season is trending, he could certainly end up with both.
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