Admittedly, as much as I adore the game of baseball, I’ve never really been someone to plant my butt on the couch and sit through a college ballgame.
When I watch baseball, I seek out its highest form, and the college game runs amok with some of my biggest bugaboos. I hate walks. I hate bunts. I loathe the lack of home runs. I hold my breath on every ground ball. I really hate bunts. I especially hate walks.
I mean, have you ever watched any midweek game ever?
But it’s still baseball. Really good baseball. The junior college level has some dudes. There are guys playing DII baseball that are good enough to play anywhere. The DI level, where the Power 5 conferences remain king, is comparable to the lower echelons of the minor leagues. This country produces a ton of incredible baseball players that will never be graced by professional baseball. And right now, one of them is better than the rest.
This is Mike Elias’ first draft in charge of the Orioles, and we get a front-row seat as we’ll learn the type of player profiles the new general manager and his staff prefers. You’ve said it, your dad’s said it, your grandma’s said it, but I’ll echo it: this draft is huge.
The Orioles don’t want to operate at the same plateau of mediocre talent they are currently deploying. Yes, there are pieces both at the big league level and throughout the minor leagues that stand to make an impact now and later. Grayson Rodriguez and Blaine Knight, for example, prove the Orioles farm system, though imperfect, isn’t without interest.
But Elias was sincere when he mentioned the need to improve the “talent pipeline” in his initial statements. The Orioles own the number-one overall selection in next month’s draft. That pick HAS to hit. And that pick has to be Adley Rutschman.
Like I said, I don’t watch a lot of college baseball, but there are few things better than the entirety of the college baseball postseason. Mississippi State’s arduous path from a midseason 16-16 record to scrambling for miraculous win after miraculous win was a story in and of itself last summer. Arkansas, on the backs of Knight and two freshmen bats Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad (two future early-round picks) were one out away from being national champions.
But there was Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, the eventual tournament MOP. Then a sophomore, Rutschman collected 17 hits in 30 at-bats, including 13 runs batted in. He had eight hits in 13 AB’s over the three-game championship series. The spotlight was preceded by a regular season that saw the sophomore put together an OPS of 1.113 while hitting .408. How do you follow that?
Well, as a junior, Rutschman is hitting .427 with an OPS of 1.368. His 58 walks is already better than his 53 a season ago, and he’s accomplished the feat in 100 fewer plate appearances. Pitchers don’t want to pitch to him. His 15 home runs this season is more than his first two years of college baseball combined (11). Rutschman has a strikeout rate of roughly 14%, and a walk rate nearly double that figure.
He has mastered the highest level of college baseball while playing in one of its premier conferences, and not to mention a schedule that included non-conference foes such as Minnesota, West Virgina, Indiana, San Diego State and Oklahoma State.
What makes Rutschman so good? Well, as Ted Williams would say, you have to know your “style”. Every hitter does different things, but you better understand your style, and you better have a sense of rhythm. Rutschman understands what he is and what he wants to be.
When you’re hitting .415 over your last two seasons, it’s hard to say that one side is more natural. It’s obvious Rutschman’s left-handed swing will be more important, but the mechanisms of both of his swings are nearly identical, and rely on similar features.
You can see how his leg kick works in harmony with his hands. As the leg kick reaches its peak, his hands are working down, and then back up. At the initiating of his actions, Rutschman’s weight is back, his head never moves off of the center line, his hips fire, and this pitch, an inside fastball, is greeted with a perfect swing. His hands work tight to his body, and the bat head works short through the zone and long to the baseball. You couldn’t script it any better.
There’s also some natural lift to his swing, which helps create all of the line drives Beaver fans have become accustomed to over the last two years.
In reality, there isn’t much correction needed when he gets to pro ball. I would imagine the Orioles will try to get him to be a little taller in his stances, as he does sink into his knees a bit. It took Orioles prospect DJ Stewart a couple of years to see results from similar adjustments, but Stewart is much clunkier than Rutschman. There’s a fluidity to his approaches at the plate, and a guy doesn’t hit over .400 for two consecutive seasons without a lot of hard contact. The bat will play.
You’re unlikely to find a bigger Pedro Severino fan than I. His enthusiasm, his entire body of work behind the plate, and his power makes him worthy of a 25-man roster spot. But he’s a backup catcher. Jesus Sucre is a backup catcher. It also doesn’t appear that Chance Sisco will ever live up to his top prospect billing, which would immediately make Rutschman the future behind the plate. And unlike Sisco, there aren’t any questions as to whether or not he’ll stay there.
Can he frame? The simple answer is yes.
Of all the Oregon State games I’ve been able to find, there’s no evidence that Rutschman isn’t a reliable target behind the plate, and that he doesn’t give his pitchers the best opportunity to add a few strikes through the course of a ballgame. He consistently works up through the baseball, the key to making the ball stick. Think the opposite of Matt Wieters.
Can he throw? Oh, definitely.
Granted, it isn’t perfect practice recording a pop time with an iPhone timer, but you make do with what you have. I had this throw timed between 1.88 and 1.93, and that works. More importantly, however, you can see how agile he is behind the plate. He has good hips, a repeatable throwing motion, and there’s nothing wasted. Everything is quick. The transfer, the pivot, the arm, it’s all prototypical.
One of the things I think people overlook or tend to undervalue is a player’s athleticism. Obviously any player that reaches the grandest stage of baseball in the world is assuredly an athlete, but to what extent? Rutschman was a standout prep kicker who still holds the Oregon state record for longest field goal. This 63-yard bomb has been the record since 2015, eight yards better than the next.
He even kicked for a year for the Oregon State football team before opting into baseball fully, and that one year included a pooch kick that resulted in him form-tackling some guy named Christian McCaffrey?
Yes, I believe he is an athlete.
I’ve heard arguments that the Orioles shouldn’t be taking a 21-year-old catcher when the process of this rebuild is likely to endure a few more years. In that instance, Bobby Witt does make sense. Witt is a potential five-tool middle infielder who is currently raking in one of the most talent-rich prep areas in the country, while also spending last summer dominating the travel circuit. Also, #QuitForWitt flows much better than #PlayBadleyForAdley.
But Witt has some holes in his swing, and the jump from high school to pro ball scares me. The talent is superb, and the shortstop position is arguably more important than catcher, but the Orioles are in need of “sure things”. What’s funny is there are no sure things in baseball, but when calculating risk, would you rather have a switch-hitting catcher that has proven to be perhaps the most well-rounded player in the country’s most necessary proving ground, or a high school phenom that MIGHT figure out how to hit through the minor leagues?
Mike Elias is a smart guy that has a team in place whose reputations are more of the same. This pick is important. It also doesn’t appear to be too difficult.