While Orioles flounder, Adley Rutschman flourishes in Aberdeen, giving team reason to hope
Whatever rhythm Adley Rutschman lost between being the first overall pick in the draft in early June and his time this month in Short-A Aberdeen is coming back quickly.
Look no further than the 10-game hitting streak he’s carrying into the All-Star break as evidence of that — a run punctuated by his first IronBirds homer in a 5-for-5 night Monday.
All the rest, however, has been on full display both in the New York-Penn League and in the Gulf Coast League since he debuted a month ago with a towering home run in Florida, eventually climbing to Aberdeen to begin what should be a fast rise through the Orioles’ farm system.
“The stuff he had to go through, being the [No. 1 overall] pick, you can see him settling in and just getting more comfortable playing the game that he loves,” IronBirds manager Kevin Bradshaw said. “I just see him being more comfortable, more confident. You knew it was going to happen. You just didn’t know how long it was going to take him.”
Considering the standards Rutschman, 21, set en route to being the Golden Spikes Award winner as the nation’s best amateur baseball player this past spring at Oregon State, the last-place Orioles certainly would have waited longer than they had to for him to come around.
Out of respect for all the obligations that come with winning the awards he did, Rutschman did the banquet circuit before signing with the struggling Orioles. A concurrent battle with mononucleosis delayed his debut even more, and executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was expecting a bit of a transitional period as he got playing again.
Living up to fanfare: After a week in the Gulf Coast League, Rutschman debuted in Aberdeen on July 27 with much fanfare. He had a pair of multihit games early, but there’s a high standard for a No. 1 overall pick. And that’s being met as his 10-game hitting streak has raised his average and OPS from .184 and .506 in this first 10 games to .325 and .894 over his first 20 at Aberdeen.
“Hitting is a lot of rhythm,” Rutschman said. “So, it’s just getting back into the swing of things. That month-and-a-half break after the season, not seeing any live pitching, then trying to jump back in, just trying to find that feel was really what it was.”
Said Bradshaw: “It’s allowed him to hit the ball hard and move the ball using all the fields, being patient, seeing more pitches. He said something to somebody earlier, that it’s just about timing. That’s what he’s getting right now. I love the patience. I love [his] being able to hit with two strikes. A lot of these guys try to ambush early, and they don’t get the fastball, and they get in a hole. You can tell he’s very comfortable hitting with two strikes.”
Getting pitched around: The respect shown by New York-Penn League pitchers didn’t help either. Hitting coach Tom Eller, a Maryland native who presumably has plenty of friends invested in both Rutschman and the Orioles’ future success, was asked before Rutschman heated up recently, “What’s his deal?”
“He’s not getting pitched to,” Eller told his friend. “He’s getting 3-0 changeups. What do you do with that? But he’s the real deal. He’s a really good player.”
So good, Bradshaw said, that the coaching staff is trying to use his at-bats as teaching moments for the rest of the hitters on the roster, pointing out how he takes pitches, how balanced he is and how he works an at-bat.
“He doesn’t even know we’re doing that, so he’s not only developing that for himself but hopefully for some of these other guys to show them,” Bradshaw said.
"Great teammate:" That’s not to say Rutschman is put on a pedestal. Toby Welk, the Orioles’ 21st-round draft pick this year, noted he used to watch Rutschman and the rest of the Pac-12 stars he now shares a clubhouse with on television. Now, the Golden Spikes Award winner and the D3Baseball.com National Player of the Year (Welk) talk hitting together.
“He’s a great baseball guy, always getting after it,” Welk said. “We’re always talking perspective, approach, feel stuff, cues. Everything in-depth with hitting, and he’s helped me a lot actually. He’s been a great teammate.”
“Personality, he’s a 1-1,” Eller said. “Work-ethic, he’s a 1-1. His ability obviously is a 1-1. He’s just great to have around, and it rubs off on some of the other guys, too. It’s been huge.”
From that, to his defensive prowess behind the plate, Rutschman has a lot the Orioles are happy to see. But even without much power to speak of during his time in Aberdeen, there’s little doubt the bat is what will define what he does if he reaches the majors.
Asking all the right questions: Eller let him settle into life in Aberdeen at his own pace and got to know him before digging too deep into the organization’s crown jewel. Once he did, he found a player who was asking all the right questions when Rutschman came in earlier this month and wanted to break down some video.
“He’s asking questions: What do you think about this? What do you think about that? What do you think about where my hands are? This and that,” Eller said. "We just started talking about his timing, when he’s starting, about his front leg and how his hips are turning. He knows what he’s got to do.
“It’s not a whole lot that I need to work with, other than just timing stuff, little itty bitty things where he’s losing posture or something like that. Everything else, he knows what he’s doing.”
"Keep with the process:" All those swing diagnostics are ingrained in Rutschman. What he’s learning in Aberdeen, and would go back and tell himself on draft night in Corvallis, Oregon, if he had the chance, is to “keep with the process and stay true to who you are."
“Even though your body wants to wear down, especially as you get into seven games a week and on the road two days a week, driving into the early morning, just getting that body right and making sure that you do what you can to be the best you can be,” Rutschman said.
Both he and the fellow first-time pros in Aberdeen have each other to get through these times. Rutschman knows several, including Stanford products Kyle Stowers, Maverick Handley and Andrew Daschbach, from playing against them in college.
“They’re all feeling the same thing, and we can all relate to a lot of the same aspects,” Rutschman said. “I think it brings the group closer together as a whole. … Everyone here is very fortunate to be in each other’s presence because a lot of the guys are very uplifting and positive. You need that in a clubhouse to be successful.”
Smooth transition: It’s all made for as smooth a transition into professional baseball as could be expected for Rutschman, whose $8.1 million signing bonus was the largest ever given to an amateur draftee and who became the centerpiece of the Orioles’ rebuild from the moment he was announced as their pick. It’s still possible he finishes the summer at Low-A Delmarva, where the Shorebirds are preparing for the South Atlantic League playoffs.
“I think we’re going to look up at the end of the year, wherever he finishes, and he’s going to have had a nice summer,” Elias said. “But it’s a very different experience going No. 1 than it is going No. 2 or anywhere else in the first round, because of the pressures and the media demands, which are extensive.
“I don’t know that it’s ever happened where you’re the No. 1 pick and you’re 40 minutes away from the major league city. He’s got a lot coming at him, and he’s doing really well with that. The staff loves him, and his teammates love him, and it’s been a really busy year for Adley. He’s doing as well as he could be.”