The Baltimore Orioles’ score at dawn on June 11 was 24-35. They have fallen to a season-worst 11 games below.500 after suffering their second consecutive defeat to the Kansas City Royals. If there was any enthusiasm surrounding the squad, it was primarily centered on Adley Rutschman, the catcher who most consider to be baseball’s top prospect and who made his debut two weeks earlier.
Rutschman appeared to be taking it in stride despite the Orioles’ slow-playing of his rise to the big, which reeked of service time manipulation. The catcher position has a reputation for having a steep learning curve for young players. His average after 16 games was.153. Everything was understandable because it was typical of a club that was rebuilding and the future stars on it.
However, it turned out that the future arrived soon.
The Orioles’ record since June 11 is 35-20. They have quickly moved from being irrelevant to competing with the Tampa Bay Rays for the final wild-card berth in the AL playoffs. After being brought to heel by the Rays’ Drew Rasmussen in a nearly flawless game, they enter Monday 1 1/2 games behind.
The thought of actually battling for a postseason spot remained more of a fantasy than a reality, an illusion that would vanish when you got close to it, even when they finished at.500 at the All-Star break. It was predicted that this club would drop 100 games. Many were disappointed by Baltimore GM Mike Elias’ admission that a playoff run was unlikely when he surrendered closer Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini at the trade deadline.
But the illusion is still there. Elias had to admit over the weekend that the Orioles are indeed in the playoff race, altering his stance from two weeks prior and said, “I think we’re going to get into the playoffs.”
They are given a 27.4% chance of making it to October by Baseball Prospectus, which puts their confidence on the opposite end of the GM-speak scale. Despite having a roster riddled with holes or major league filler, the Orioles have performed well enough to warrant a closer look. Even if the Orioles are eliminated from consideration for the 2022 World Series, there is one very genuine development that stands out when you search for the content beneath their winning streak: Due to his position behind the plate, Rutschman has quickly developed into an excellent player who is more equipped than most individual stars to improve the fortunes of a whole team.
Adley Rutschman has developed into a top athlete.
Rutschman has consistently ranked among the top five position players in baseball since June 11, the day the Orioles began their ascent to their current double-take-inducing position in the standings.
He is hitting in the 51 games throughout that time span.
277/.395/.503. He has walked exactly 33 times as often as he has struck out, a statistic that is almost solely held by superstar-level hitters. It would be as if Alex Bregman had outstanding catching skills.
Rutschman is performing admirably at catcher, and his outstanding defensive background is evident. He belongs to the top tier of framers, which is particularly noteworthy given that he has taken some of the playing time away from Robinson Chirinos, the worst framer in the majors in 2022. The assessment of receiving (or framing) talent involves much more than this, but on the most fundamental level, Rutschman has been called for strikes on 50% of questionable calls while Chirinos has been called for strikes on 40% of them. That adds up over the course of a season.
Don’t give Rutschman all the credit for this because defensive influence is extremely difficult to measure with certainty, but the Baltimore pitching staff has improved significantly since his arrival as well. They have the third-lowest (read: third-best) walk rate in MLB since his debut, which is consistent with the improved framing. It was difficult to ignore Rutschman’s involvement with his pitchers from the time he first entered the league. You will almost always see Rutschman jogging to meet his pitcher between the mound and the dugout at the end of each inning. He has always been praised as a loud leader, both during his career as a great college player at Oregon State and in the minors.
The ascension of Rutschman signals that the Orioles must now contend.
A team is not made or broken by one player. Ask the Angels, please. However, there are some players that appear to serve as signals. When the light turns green, they put the car in overdrive and disengage cruise control.
While it would be lovely to think of that as an inborn rah-rah aura, it is more likely the result of the same value-driven considerations that held Rutschman in the minors until May and sent Mancini to Houston. A similar strategy is being carried out by Elias, the Orioles general manager who previously served as the No. 2 during the Astros renovation. Rutschman can be thought of as the sequel’s Carlos Correa.
The Orioles’ window opened as soon as Rutschman’s clock began to run out—three years before he begins to become expensive and seven years before he enters free agency or at the very least has the power of the market. Rutschman has long been regarded as a “complete, franchise-altering prospect” by the baseball community at large. This spring, FanGraphs dubbed him a “nearly-perfect prospect.” Even the coldest, most pessimistic perspective on baseball thinks it’s time to scrounge up the rest of the parts and at least try for a postseason berth with Rutschman playing like this and the Orioles as close as they are.
Elias discussed making the playoffs, his willingness to call up third base prospect Gunnar Henderson, who some believe the most talented player in the minors right now, as well as his plans for the next winter on the radio this past weekend. That is why D.L. Hall, a promising pitcher who made his major league debut this week, will reportedly make a brief journey down to the minors before switching to the bullpen for the remainder of the season.
There is no getting around the fact that the Orioles’ front office didn’t think 2022 was as significant or as promising as 2024 and 2025, and still doesn’t. However, their actions reveal that they’re growing more and more certain that something extraordinary is possible and that reality lies beneath the extraordinary. And Rutschman was the first to do that.
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