HARTFORD, Conn. – Adley Rutschman had been waiting to catch Grayson Rodriguez again. Having previously worked with his fellow Top 100 prospect at Class A Delmarva in 2019 and last year’s alternate site, Rutschman was filled with anticipation about being behind the plate for Rodriguez’s Double-A Bowie debut Wednesday in Hartford.
The result: eight strikeouts, one earned run allowed over five stellar innings. Perhaps the most eye-popping stat of the night: Rodriguez hit 100 mph on the stadium radar gun six times over his 71 pitches on the night.
“I always thought high school and college, ‘Oh gosh how do guys catch 100?’” Rutschman said. “But now, you kind of see that you just adjust over time.”
It’s a sensation MLB Pipeline’s top catching prospect will have to get used to, not only as he serves as the backstop for more Rodriguez starts but for as long as he works on a loaded Bowie roster.
The Baysox boast three Top 100 prospects in Rutschman (No. 2), Rodriguez (No. 21) and DL Hall (No. 56), a left-hander who has also touched triple-digits and has struck out 39 batters through 21 innings. Bowie also has No. 7 Orioles prospect Mike Baumann and No. 10 Terrin Vavra on its roster, meaning half of the Baltimore’s top 10 prospects play for its Double-A club.
Beating even the highest of expectations, Bowie is 19-5 following Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Hartford. That gives it the second-best record in all of the Minor Leagues behind only Triple-A Nashville’s 20-5 start.
Putting a lot of talent on one roster is as good a recipe as can be found in sports, but it has not been the sole driver of Bowie’s success to this point.
“The thing I would say about winning is, it's tough to teach,” said Rutschman, who won a College World Series with Oregon State in 2018. “You see a lot of teams with talent who don't do as much as they should or teams without talent that are able to win. Finding ways to win and ways to hold on to wins is kind of a talent in itself. This team is extremely detail-oriented and so from that standpoint, it's sometimes contagious.”
Given the makeup of his club, manager Buck Britton – a 35-year-old who played in the O’s system from 2008 to 2014 -- and his fellow Bowie coaches have taken a loose approach to the clubhouse and letting the players’ talent and work ethic be the drivers of their successes.
“We've set a tone as a staff to go out there, have fun, not be afraid to make mistakes and be aggressive,” said the skipper. “We've been super aggressive on the bases, super aggressive at the plate. We take the approach when we have to pull back we use some of these mistakes as coaching opportunities. We'll coach it after something happens.”
To say Britton and the Bowie staff are completely hands-off, however, would be inaccurate. Britton notes that players and coaches alike have leaned much more on technology and analytics since his Double-A days a decade ago, and that came to the forefront Wednesday when Rutschman indicated that Rodriguez leaned heavily on his off-speed stuff in the middle innings because of data the pair had picked up on Hartford hitters.
Then, there’s also the point of just how well the pieces of the Bowie roster play in concert with each other.
“It's kind of corny to say, but they really love each other,” said Orioles director of player development Matt Blood. “They pull hard for each other. They push each other to get better. They compete with each other but in a way that they know is going to help each other improve. I think they believe right now that they're in every game. It's fun watching them play night in and night out.”
Rodriguez and Hall are known to have a healthy and playful rivalry on and off the field as the two top pitching prospects in the Baltimore system. The pair pitched on the same days in Spring Training, according to Britton, and were constantly comparing notes in intrasquad matchups and other games at the complex in Sarasota. Hall even tweeted “Uhh ohh” to Rodriguez on the news of the latter’s Double-A promotion.
“It's an internal competition, and they're going to try to one up each other,” Britton said. “It's healthy for both those guys, and I think you're going to see both of them pick it up a notch even.”
Hall is next scheduled to pitch Saturday in Hartford, so the Double-A competition could begin in earnest then.
Of course, the lynchpin of the Bowie roster is Rutschman. Serving as the Baysox No. 3 hitter, the 23-year-old switch-hitter is off to a hot start at the plate, hitting .277/.445/.520 with six homers and more walks (23) than strikeouts (21) through 24 games. But for his offensive contributions, he adds just as much as a 6-foot-2, 220-pound field general behind the plate.
“We have two great catchers this year in Double-A, and it’s awesome to have guys like that, especially Adley back there, because it does nothing but help your confidence,” Hall told MLB.com after a nine-K effort on May 11. “He makes you really comfortable on the mound and makes you really comfortable with throwing any pitch in any situation. He’s a big target and is definitely good on the mental side as well, picking up his pitchers and things like that.”
Baltimore’s Major League club entered Thursday with a 19-37 record, the worst at the top level. The organization has finished last in the AL East in three of the last four seasons, and it’s no secret that the O’s are in the midst of an ongoing rebuild. In that way, the core of Baltimore’s contender could very well be in Bowie.
The players have one objective in mind first.
“I think a lot of guys like to talk about their goals and aspirations because that’s something to strive for,” Rutschman said. “But I think everyone here hopes to be in the big leagues first and foremost and hopefully gets that opportunity.”
But that won’t stop the coaches and others in the organization from getting a little more wide-eyed about the possibilities of the future of the Bowie players in 2021 and beyond.
“You just never know,” Britton said. “We push these guys to stay confident but to also see that there is opportunity here. Why not be the guy? Why not be the guy that helps turn this thing around?”