1 year since debut, Rutschman has exceeded the hype
When Adley Rutschman made his much anticipated MLB debut on May 21, 2022, the Orioles were on pace for their sixth straight losing season, but the young catcher's arrival sparked a baseball renaissance in Baltimore. And now, as he moves past the one-year mark since his callup, he's helped turn the O's into legitimate contenders.
Rutschman's rookie season was one of the best on record for a backstop, and he's only gotten better in 2023. The 25-year-old switch-hitter entered Sunday's action with a .279/.407/.448 slash (139 OPS+) over 46 games, leading the Orioles to the second-best record in MLB behind the Rays.
Here's a breakdown of Rutschman's first year in the Majors -- the impact he's had on the Orioles, the improvements he's made in his second season and how he stacks up historically against some all-time greats at his position. It's safe to say he's exceeded the hype. (All stats below are through Saturday's games.)
Rutschman’s impact on the Orioles
While one player can only do so much to influence an MLB team’s record, looking at Baltimore’s performance before and after Rutschman’s arrival provides a glimpse at how he’s altered the franchise’s fortunes.
The Orioles selected Rutschman with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, coming off a season in which they finished 47-115 and kicked off a rebuild by trading Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop. Baltimore lost more than 100 games again in 2019 (108) and 2021 (110), and went 16-24 prior to Rutschman’s promotion in 2022, roughly a 65-97 pace over 162 games.
But after he joined the team, the Orioles went 67-55 over their final 122 games in 2022 to finish the season above .500. They’ve continued to win in 2023, going 30-16 in their first 46 games.
Rutschman has started 150 games in the Majors, and the Orioles are 90-60 with him in the starting lineup, a .600 winning percentage. That's a far cry from the .331 winning percentage the team had from the start of 2018 up until the backstop was summoned from the Minors.
How he’s improved in 2023
Rutschman has made significant strides at the plate in 2023, as evidenced by his 59-point increase in expected wOBA, based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks. His .401 xwOBA is an elite figure, tied for 15th highest in the Majors.
The catcher was already disciplined as a rookie, but he’s taken the concept to another level in 2023, posting a 93rd-percentile chase rate, a 99th-percentile walk rate and one of the lowest overall swing rates in MLB.
Rutschman has only swung at the first pitch 12 times in 204 plate appearances (MLB-low 5.9% first-pitch swing rate) this season, and he’s averaging 4.35 pitches per PA. You might think that getting into deeper counts would leave him more prone to striking out, but he’s actually going down on strikes less frequently -- 14.2% of the time, a 90th percentile mark (69th percentile in 2022).
Perhaps even more importantly, he’s improved the quality of his contact, producing fewer grounders and popups and more line drives and fly balls.
Relatively speaking, Rutschman doesn’t hit the ball that hard -- his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are both well below average -- but he compensates by spraying the ball to all fields and often making contact in the launch angle “sweet-spot” zone (8-32 degrees). His sweet-spot rate is 42.8% this season, the 14th highest among qualifying batters.
While Rutschman has gotten better from both sides of the plate, his improvements while batting right-handed have been particularly dramatic.
- Sweet-spot rate: Up 22.1 points (24.7% to 46.8%)
- Strikeout rate: Down 6.4 points (22.6% to 16.2%)
- Walk rate: Up 6.4 points (13.9% to 20.3%)
- xwOBA: Up .117 (.283 to .400)
- Sweet-spot rate: Up 1.9 points (38.8% to 40.7%)
- Strikeout rate: Down 3.5 points (16.9% to 13.4%)
- Walk rate: Up 1.2 points (13.8% to 15.0%)
- xwOBA: Up .042 (.361 to .403)
How he stacks up historically
Rutschman’s production so far rivals that of some of the biggest legends at the catching position. In fact, even though he spent the first six weeks of 2022 in the Minors, Rutschman became the fifth catcher in AL/NL history to record at least 5 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) as a rookie -- a testament to the value he provided on both sides of the ball.
In doing so, Rutschman joined three Hall of Famers (Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench) and Thurman Munson, who was on a Hall of Fame path before his life was tragically cut short in 1979.
Highest WAR by a rookie catcher in AL/NL history:
- Carlton Fisk, 1972: 7.3
- Mike Piazza, 1993: 7.0
- Thurman Munson, 1970: 5.5
- Adley Rutschman, 2022: 5.2
- Johnny Bench, 1968: 5.0
Among the previous four catchers to post a 5 WAR season as a rookie, only Bench came back and did it again in the following season (though Piazza likely would have done it too if not for the 1994 strike).
Rutschman could become the second -- he produced 1.6 WAR in Baltimore’s first 46 games, putting him on pace for 5.6 over a full season.
And that’s not the only way he could make history in 2023.
Only 10 players in AL/NL history (17 total occurrences) have had a season in which they walked 100-plus times while playing at least 50% of their games at catcher. Rutschman is not only on pace to join that group, he’s on pace for 130 walks, which would break Gene Tenace's AL/NL record for walks by a catcher.
Most walks by a catcher in AL/NL history:
- Gene Tenace, 1977: 125
- Mickey Tettleton, 1992: 122
- Darrell Porter, 1979: 121
- Darren Daulton, 1993: 117
- Gene Tenace, 1974: 110
Rutschman currently holds the AL lead in walks by a considerable margin, putting him on track to become just the fifth catcher (sixth occurrence) in the modern era (since 1900) to lead his league in walks and the first to do it in more than 30 years.
He would join Mickey Tettleton (1992 AL), Darrell Porter (1979 AL), Tenace (1977 NL and 1974 AL) and Roger Bresnahan (1908 NL) as the only modern-era catchers to pull off the feat.
And if he keeps this up and helps Baltimore end its postseason drought, he'll also put himself in consideration to join another exclusive group: MVP Award-winning catchers.