If anyone's wondering how the Baltimore Orioles are still winning games even after offloading two of their best players at the Aug. 2 trade deadline, there's at least one good explanation.
In Adley Rutschman, they have arguably the best catcher in Major League Baseball right now.
This is to say that the 24-year-old Rutschman is becoming what he was foretold to be when the Orioles drafted him at No. 1 overall in 2019. People were slapping Buster Posey comparisons on him left and right, and they stuck as he debuted as a consensus top-five prospect in 2020 and ascended to the top spot in Baseball America's rankings for 2022.
As they kinda-sorta-not-really say, with great hype comes great responsibility to immediately live up to it. Rutschman did in the sense that he was in the majors by May 21 even after his spring was sidetracked by a strained triceps, but he mostly ate a diet of humble pie as he hit .176 with no home runs through his first 20 games as an Oriole.
Then in his 21st game on June 15, the 6'2", 220-pound switch-hitter finally got off the schneid with his first long ball:
Things haven't been the same for Rutschman and the Orioles since then.
The Oregon State product has accumulated a .919 OPS, seven home runs and he's tied for the most fWAR of any American League hitter not named Aaron Judge since June 15. The Orioles lost on that date but got started on a 34-20 run on June 16. Among AL clubs, only the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners have won more games in this span.
Perhaps unfairly, the Orioles still only have a 2.6 percent chance of making the playoffs by FanGraphs' reckoning. Yet given how far they've come after losing 100-plus games in each of the last three full seasons and just how much Rutschman has to do with it, the man surely deserves at least some down-ballot love in the AL MVP voting.
This is, of course, assuming he doesn't fade down the stretch. But that doesn't seem likely, as he only seems to be getting more comfortable with each game he plays.
Rutschman, the Hitter, Is As Advertised
Because the 2020 season was cancelled, it wasn't until last year that Rutschman got to play a full campaign in the minor leagues. He basically did everything right at the plate, slashing .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs and only 11 more strikeouts than walks.
Those were surely the numbers of a complete hitter, and there really weren't any nit-picks to be found in scouting reports on Rutschman. His eye for strike zone earned him descriptors such as "elite" and "uncanny" from Baseball America, and he was likewise lauded for his ability to make contact.
These skills didn't show through after he first arrived in the majors, but they sure have lately.
Through his first 20 games, he had 22.0 strikeout percentage and a 7.3 walk percentage. He's improved those numbers to 16.4 and 15.9 over his last 50 games, which tracks with his downward-trending chase and whiff percentages:
Evidently a fan of having his cake and eating it too, Rutschman hasn't sacrificed any of what Baseball America deemed to be "potentially elite power" to get his approach on track. The .518 slugging percentage he has since June 15 is backed up by some solid batted-ball data, including a 39.9 hard-hit rate and a 10.1 barrel percentage.
More specifically, where Rutschman has really turned a corner is in punishing fastballs. His run value against them through 20 games was minus-7.8. It's plus-11.5 since then, tying him with Yordan Álvarez for the 10th-best mark among AL hitters.
Ever hear a broadcaster talk about how the game seems to be "slowing down" for a young player? That's Rutschman right now, and his offense is only half of it.
Rutschman, the Defender, Is Also As Advertised
In addition to a potent bat, Rutschman was always supposed to offer more than just adequate defense behind the plate. Once again going to the Baseball America well, he projected to be "an advanced receiver and [have a] strong arm."
To the latter, it was clear early on that the goods were there:
What Rutschman initially lacked in tandem with those goods were results, as he was just 2-for-15 throwing out runners through July 15. That's no longer the case. He's 5-for-11 throwing runners out since then.
With regard to Rutschman's receiving, the fact that he has yet to record a passed ball is no small credit to him. Yet where he really shines is in framing strikes, to which Julio Rodríguez can attest:
Perhaps he's no Jose Trevino just yet, but Rutschman is tied for ninth in Statcast's Catcher Framing Runs metric. This is also yet another area where he's trending in the right direction, as his called-strike rates both outside and inside the zone are going up.
With most catchers who boast good framing numbers, it's fair to wonder how much is skill and how much is reputation. Yet perhaps less so with Rutschman. As a rookie with just 69 games under his belt, it's hard to believe that umpires are already programmed to give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls.
Besides, it surely takes real skill to be able to frame strikes all over the shadow of the zone. Relative to the league average, Rutschman's only true shortcoming is when he has to frame pitches off the corner of the plate to his right:
We're not saying that this alone explains why Orioles pitchers have a 3.66 ERA with Rutschman behind the plate compared to 4.41 when Robinson Chirinos catches...but we're not not saying that either.
It's Only Going to Get Better for Rutschman and the Orioles
If there's one less-than-great thing looming in Rutschman's future, it's that his framing skills probably aren't going to be useful for much longer. Per MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the automated strike zone is likely coming to the majors in 2024.
Otherwise, both Rutschman and the Orioles should just be getting started.
Though Rutschman is already living up to the Posey comparisons, his prime is likely still ahead of him. There's indeed no better example for him to follow than Posey himself, who was brilliant as a 23-year-old rookie in 2010 but even better between the ages of 25 and 28. His two-way brilliance netted him the National League MVP in 2012, and he was likewise the league's most valuable catcher between then and 2015.
While the supporting cast around Rutschman is already strong, they're far from done harvesting talent from a farm system that B/R's Joel Reuter rated as MLB's best after the 2022 draft.
Provided he makes a strong recovery from the right lat strain that's sidelined him since June, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez should be to Baltimore's starting rotation what Rutschman is to its offense. And he won't have to carry said offense squarely on his shoulders for much longer. With 18 homers, 18 stolen bases and a .959 OPS to his name, shortstop Gunnar Henderson is quickly running out of things to prove in the minors.
What the Orioles don't have in any kind of abundance are high-priced veterans to tie everything together. But that may not be the case for long, as general manager Mike Elias hinted on MLB Network Radio last weekend that a big offseason splurge is coming:
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The Birds are back! <br><br>After being one of the biggest surprises this season, Mike Elias and the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Orioles?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Orioles</a> have big plans. <a href="https://twitter.com/Orioles?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Orioles</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Birdland?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Birdland</a> <a href="https://t.co/tQgEtFVJ8n">pic.twitter.com/tQgEtFVJ8n</a>
In retrospect, these big plans perhaps only make it more frustrating that the Orioles operated as a seller at the trade deadline. Teams that want to win generally don't deal away sluggers like Trey Mancini or closers like Jorge López, the latter of whom is under club control for two more seasons after 2022.
All the same, there's no question that the long game the Orioles have been playing since they went into rebuilding mode back in 2018 is getting shorter. The time to make a run at the franchise's first World Series since 1983 may not be now, but it is soon.
When things inevitably do go into overdrive in Baltimore, nobody should forget that it was Rutschman who first put the key in the ignition.