Earlier this week, the Rockies sent Josh Rutledge to Colorado Springs. To be certain, Rutledge was not playing well, and there is a decent chance that Rutledge really isn’t that good in general. Then again, he may also need to just figure out who he is. He was semi-rushed to the majors, as he skipped Triple-A, and there is anecdotal evidence that his game has changed since his hot start.
Rutledge is an interesting case. It would be unfair to say that he came out of nowhere. He was a third-round pick in 2010, after all, but he almost came out of nowhere. He didn’t immediately make any waves on the prospect circuit, and was never a tip-top prospect either. He didn’t make an impression of any sort in his 11 games at Tri-City after he signed in 2010, and as a result didn’t make the Rockies’ top-10 prospect lists generated by our own Marc Hulet, Keith Law or Baseball America heading into 2011. He would go on to hit very well in ’11, and plaudits would follow, but they were still conservative. Heading into 2012, he landed 11th on Hulet’s list, eighth on Law’s list and 10th on BA’s. He didn’t make the overall top 100 for any of the three, however.
After graduating to Double-A to start 2012, Rutledge continued to hit well, but his already modest walk rate fell off a cliff. He only walked in 3.7 percent of his 379 plate appearances at Tulsa — less than half of his 7.8% walk rate in a full season in 2011. His walk rate declined even further upon his promotion to the Rockies. Troy Tulowitzki was already down and out by the time Rutledge reached Denver, but the subsequent injuries to Jonathan Herrera and Chris Nelson, combined with the Marco Scutaro trade and Rutledge’s own fast start, conspired to keep him with the big league club for the remainder of the season.
Aside from the walk rate, which has actually come up into the respectable range this season, there have been warning signs all along. Despite that uptick in walk rate, Rutledge has actually been seeing the exact same amount of pitches this year as he did last year — 3.58 pitches. That is well below league average, and looking at his pitch summary breakdown on Baseball-Reference, the positives and negatives seem to be washing out. He’s swinging at the first pitch less, but he’s also striking out looking more. That’s not necessarily a huge negative in isolation, but taken with some other factors — a drastically different GB/FB rate being another — and you can see a guy who maybe is a little lost at the plate. Perhaps Rutledge is trying to fit the mold of what a two-hole hitter is “supposed” to be. Manager Walt Weiss has noted his appreciation of Rutledge’s athleticism on a number of occasions, and how he can do positive things on the bases. And that’s true. But perhaps in order to cause that base-stealing havoc, Rutledge is changing his approach and trying to hit more singles. As I mentioned, his overall GB/FB is up from 1.59 last year to 2.00 this season. And after attempting zero bunts last season, he’s already attempted four this season. His infield hits have also gone up — after notching 11 infield hits last year in 291 plate appearances, he’s already up to nine this season in 173.
Then again, maybe Rutledge’s swing is messed up in part because of his leg kick. Following a quad injury late last season, there is concern that he lost the proper timing on his leg kick and has been fighting it ever since. With new manager Walt Weiss and hitting coach Dante Bichette not being aggressive about tinkering with player’s swings, figuring out his timing is something that Rutledge is going to have to figure out on his own, if that is indeed the problem.
And it very well maybe. Below, I have frozen three screen shots that show the top of Rutledge’s leg kick:
The top image is from July 29, at the end of Rutledge’s orgasmic first month of big league ball. In it, you can see that he gets a good bit of air between his front foot and the ground. But in the following two shots that does not appear to be the case. The middle shot is from Sept. 16, when he was mired in a slump that may have been in part due to his injury. And the bottom is from May 3. To impart a little consistency on this look, I used only home run swings, and the top and bottom images are of home runs to right-center at Coors Field. You can see the videos for the three here, here and here. Perhaps with his leg kick not being as vertical in nature explains the sharp drop in his slugging percentage and isolated power numbers.
However, there is also the possibility that Rutledge just isn’t that good. As I noted the other day on Twitter, anyone can hit the ball well for a month, and in comparing his first great month with Clint Barmes’ first great month, we can see a disturbing anecdotal trend:
Barmes, April ’05: .410/.467/.639
Rest of career: .244/.293/.380
Rutledge, Jul ’12: .381/.394/.683
Rest of career: .243/.288/.385
Now, this isn’t a perfect comparison. For one, April, 2005, wasn’t the first month of Barmes’ career. It was very early in his career, and it was the first month in his first season in which he had made an opening day roster, but it wasn’t his first-first month. For another thing, Barmes was a good three years older in 2005 than Rutledge was last season. Rutledge’s “rest of career” doesn’t have anywhere near the bulk that Barmes’ does. And finally, I cherry-picked these two guys pretty hard. Still, it’s a touch disturbing. I mean, I could pick on several players to highlight what a flash in the pan looks like (Mike Petriello will happily nominate Luis Cruz). These things happen. Barmes has endured because of his defensive value, but Rutledge doesn’t really have that weapon in his arsenal. The question is figuring out whether or not Rutledge is the next player to be a flash in the pan, or if he just needs some more seasoning.
It’s hard to know, to be honest. We still don’t totally know what we have in Rutledge. When the Rockies sent down Chris Iannetta early in 2010, we basically knew the floor and ceiling for his performance, and knew that that was his floor. Likewise for Dexter Fowler in 2011 — he had played long enough in the majors for us to know that we were seeing him at his absolute low point — his 81 wRC+ in 2011’s first half was 16 and 13 percent worse than his 2009 and 2010 numbers, respectively. And the way he’s blossomed since that point shows that that respite was the right move. At the time he was sent down, Fowler had hit .255/.349/.391 in 337 career games. In the 255 games since he came back up in July ’11, he’s hit .291/.381/.481. Mission accomplished.
We’ve seen similar highs and lows from Rutledge, but they have come in such a short time that it’s hard to know who the real player is in there. I would lean towards him not being the guy we saw in July and August if pressed, but there is compelling evidence on both sides of the equation. And while DJ Lemahieu plays good defense, he is certainly not going to stand in Rutledge’s way if he puts it back together.
Rutledge probably isn’t as good as he was when he was called up to the majors, and he probably isn’t as bad as he has been since last September. But if you have to pick the more likely outcome for a player who didn’t carry a big pedigree in college or the minors, and whose performance has dropped sharply since he has gone through the league a second time, you’d certainly have to pick the latter. Hopefully his first trip to Colorado Springs will help him sort it all out sooner rather than later.