Adley Rutschman’s Rookie Season Has Been a Smashing Success

Adley Rutschman
Brent Skeen-USA TODAY Sports

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
Period W L W-L% GB* RS/G RA/G pythW-L% WC%
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%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* 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
Split BBE EV Barrel% HH% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
LHB 201 87.8 9.0% 36.8% .276 .268 .504 .461 .380 .364
RHB 54 88.6 7.4% 42.6% .164 .200 .233 .319 .257 .299
Total 255 88.0 8.6% 38.0% .251 .253 .442 .428 .351 .349
Percentile 30 55 35 83
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
LHB 44.8% 0.83 33.8% .287 .420 97
RHB 51.9% 1.37 48.1% .179 .282 22

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
Player Team Season G PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Off Def WAR
Mike Piazza LAD 1993 149 602 35 .318 .370 .561 150 36.3 16.5 7.4
Carlton Fisk BOS 1972 131 514 22 .293 .370 .538 165 33.7 8.8 6.6
Thurman Munson NYY 1970 132 526 6 .302 .386 .415 127 15.3 16.5 5.0
Johnny Bench CIN 1968 154 607 15 .275 .311 .433 115 7.5 9.9 4.5
Wilson Ramos WSN 2011 113 435 15 .267 .334 .445 111 1.0 27.5 4.4
Buster Posey SFG 2010 108 443 18 .305 .357 .505 134 16.7 8.9 4.0
Adley Rutschman BAL 2022 92 377 10 .251 .358 .442 131 17.0 9.5 4.0
Yasmani Grandal SDP 2012 60 226 8 .297 .394 .469 144 9.2 19.9 3.8
Tom Haller SFG 1962 99 331 18 .261 .384 .515 144 16.8 7.9 3.7
Darrell Porter MIL 1973 117 416 16 .254 .363 .457 130 14.6 6.0 3.6
Butch Wynegar MIN 1976 149 622 10 .260 .356 .363 113 8.6 4.5 3.6
Jonathan Lucroy MIL 2010 75 297 4 .253 .300 .329 70 -12.3 38.0 3.6
Austin Barnes LAD 2017 102 262 8 .289 .408 .486 142 12.7 14.4 3.6
Matt Nokes DET 1987 135 508 32 .289 .345 .536 131 19.9 -2.4 3.4
Joe Mauer MIN 2005 131 554 9 .294 .372 .411 108 8.2 7.2 3.4
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.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Pepper Martin
1 year ago

24 seems kind of old for a true franchise megastar to have their rookie season; the only comparable one I can think of recently is Aaron Judge being 25 in 2017, but there were special circumstances due to him needing to figure out how to use his body. I know catchers always take longer to develop, but is there a lot of precedent for franchise players taking this long to develop?

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Well there was also the fact that he lost a whole year due to the pandemic.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

He would have been up by the end of last year if not for the 2020 minor league season being cancelled. But 23/24 is pretty common for catchers. Posey and Mauer were a little faster (Mauer drafted out of highschool helped), but the current top catchers all debuted around then.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

The combination of being a 21yo draft pick, a catcher, and losing 2020 due to COVID is to blame here. Only spending one full season in the minors counts as absolutely flying through when you’re a catcher, Adley developed about as fast as he could given the circumstances.

For comparison Posey was drafted at 21, got a September callup the next year, then came up for good midway through his age 23 season. If Adley had a normal 2020 minor league season, it’s likely he would’ve forced his way up to the bigs sometime last summer.

Last edited 1 year ago by Eltneg
1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

deGrom was 26 his rookie season. It happens.