Why Adley will be baseball's best catcher in '23
Adley Rutschman had a stellar debut campaign in 2022, with a 133 wRC+ and 5.3 WAR, per FanGraphs, tied with Julio Rodríguez for most among rookies. In a talented class, Rutschman finished second to Rodríguez for AL Rookie of the Year honors, leaving us all eager to see what’s next for the sport’s young stars, including the Baltimore backstop.
Rutschman’s great all-around season landed him third on MLB Network’s Top 10 Catchers Right Now, per the Shredder – an impressive place to begin his career. On our SABR panel, I ranked him second, after having him 10th entering ‘22, before he’d even played a big league game.
But as I discussed on the show and in the clip above, I was wrong. I should have ranked him first, but I feared being the outlier -- which was silly, don’t make decisions that way.
The goal of our individual lists is to rank who we think will be tops at their positions this season. Here is why Rutschman will be the top catcher in the Majors in 2023.
As noted above, Rutschman had a 133 wRC+ -- meaning that his offensive production was 33% better than league average. That’s considering all batters, though. If we zero in on other catchers, the mark becomes even more notable. There were 34 players to rack up at least 250 plate appearances as a catcher last season. Rutschman’s 133 wRC+ led the way.
A few components to that offensive prowess are worth noting. First, his plate discipline. In his first experience with MLB pitching, he was in the 88th percentile in whiff rate and 82nd percentile in chase rate -- seeing pitches well and choosing swings wisely. Those two led to a better-than-MLB-average 18.3% strikeout rate and a 13.8% walk rate. 167 batters had at least 450 plate appearances last year and just eight walked at a higher clip. And of course, none of them were catchers.
Secondly, what happened when he did make contact. He had a 35.6% sweet spot rate, which means that more than a third of the time, his contact was in the launch angle sweet-spot zone -- creating ideal, line-drive and fly-ball contact. Not hitting the ball on the ground is key, and he excelled there. When Rutschman made sweet-spot contact, he hit .604 and slugged 1.153. That’s quality contact.
To be the No.1 at any non-pitching or DH position requires a mix of both offense and defense, and catcher is a premium position, where the best of the best excel at both, but are few and far between. Rutschman had 18 Defensive Runs Saved in 762 innings behind the plate in ‘22, second-most among catchers behind Jose Trevino (21), despite having the fewest innings of anyone in the top five -- and DRS is a cumulative stat.
With Statcast, we can go beyond an overall defensive stat, and look at two much-discussed elements of catcher defense: his arm and his framing. Rutschman’s average pop time to second base was 1.93 seconds, tied for fourth-best among catchers with at least 20 attempts, and better than the MLB average of 2.0 seconds. Pop time king J.T. Realmuto led the way at 1.82 seconds. More on him later, worry not.
Rutschman’s average max-effort arm strength, the top 10% of his throws, was 86.3 mph, tied for third. Realmuto led, again, at 87.6 mph.
In terms of framing, Rutschman converted 49.6% of takes on borderline pitches into strikes, tied for the sixth-highest among catchers to receive at least 1,600 borderline pitches, and better than the MLB average. The only catcher ahead of Realmuto on the list who was in the Shredder’s Top 10 was Alejandro Kirk, third on the framing list, sixth per the Shredder.
Rutschman is projected to be a top player in the game in ‘23, not just leading the way among catchers. His 5.6 projected WAR per Steamer is tied for fifth, behind only Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Julio Rodríguez and Mookie Betts. Next-highest among catchers is Realmuto, a full win behind, at 4.6.
So let’s talk about Realmuto. He has been the consensus best catcher in the game, the reigning choice, combining offense, durability, defense and speed, for his position. None of this is to dispute any of that. The game is incredibly lucky to have a soon-to-be-25-year-old primed to dethrone an almost-32-year-old at a premium position. With the two of them, plus plenty of others, catching is in a great spot.
But the above numbers, the bat and the defense, not to mention all of the catching intangibles -- that was 113 games of Rutschman. Imagine what he’ll do with a full season, a full Spring Training as The Starting Catcher. Thanks to the projections, we don’t only have to imagine it. Now, we get to sit back and enjoy the show.