Jackson Rutledge was named MLB Pipeline’s #1 prospect of the Nats. What is he all about?

Rutledge was the Nationals’ top draft pick in June 2019. (MLB)

It has been a little over a full year from his draft in the first round in 2019, and Jackson Rutledge is now MLB Pipeline’s № 1 prospect for the Washington Nationals. He holds the same spot that Stephen Strasburg once held for the Nats, and the pair have many things in common including going undrafted from High School and straight to the first round in the draft out of college.

On the Baseball America rankings, Cade Cavalli is on top of that list for the Nats with Rutledge as the № 2 prospect. Both players spent a lot of time together at the 2020 Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, and yes, Cavalli had his barbershop scissors and clippers with him and cut Rutledge’s hair a few times. In return for the haircuts, Jackson would cook breakfast for Cavalli in a swap. 

The hulking 6’8″ 250 pound full-bodied right-handed pitcher has a large frame and could easily be mistaken for a basketball player — and as he said to us, he usually gets the basketball or volleyball questions. He grew up in Fenton, Missouri which is a suburb of St. Louis. Interestingly enough, Rutledge went as a fan to Busch Stadium for the first two games of the 2019 NLCS wearing his Nats gear and was heckled by the Cardinals fans. He got to see Anibal Sanchez mystify the Cardinals with a near no-hitter and then watched Max Scherzer the next night carve up the Cardinals as the Nats departed St. Louis with a 2-0 lead in the series on their way to sweeping the Cards. Rutledge told us that his favorite moment in the 2019 postseason was the Juan Soto hit in the Wild Card that put the Nats ahead in the game.

In high school, Rutledge  went 7-1 with a 1.19 ERA as a senior but went undrafted in the 2017 MLB amateur draft out of High School and enrolled at the University of Arkansas to play college baseball for the Arkansas Razorbacks where he was college teammates with Nats draftees Matt Cronin and Evan Lee who are both lefty pitchers.

Rutledge transferred to San Jacinto Junior College where he really shot up the draft rankings boards. At San Jac in 2019, he had a 9-2 record with a 0.87 ERA in 13 games, striking out 134 in 82.2 innings and was a Golden Spikes award semi-finalist which is rarity for a JUCO player.

The Washington Nationals chose the big righty with their 17th overall pick in the first round, and he signed shortly afterwards for $3.45 million. If you watched the draft on MLB Network, Rutledge was there in-person.

“Yah, [MLB Network] invited me out there and talked to my parent’s first so I kind of got surprised by the invitation,” Rutledge said. “That was exciting, and I couldn’t pass that opportunity up.”

Rutledge was assigned in 2019 to the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Nationals before being promoted to the Auburn Doubledays. After one game in Auburn, he was promoted to the Low-A Hagerstown Suns in July 2019 and over ten starts between the three clubs, he went 2-0 while striking out 39 over ​37 1⁄3 innings and finished with a 2.30 ERA at Hagerstown in 2019. It might have been the work in 2020 at the Alternate Training Site at Fredericksburg that turned Rutledge into a top prospect.

Baseball America published their Top-10 prospects in the Nats system, and they wrote this about Rutledge with the following 20/80 ratings:

Fastball: 70. Slider: 60. Changeup: 50. Curveball: 50. Control: 50

SCOUTING REPORT: Rutledge is an intimidating, aggressive pitcher with a high-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. Both are plus pitches that draw swings and misses, and he complements them with a curveball and changeup that are average, usable offerings. Rutledge stays tall on the mound and uses a compact arm action. The ball appears to come out of his shoulder and gets on hitters quickly with explosive life. He’s a decent athlete who improved in 2020 at slowing things down and pitching under control, helping him throw more strikes. Rutledge does a good job of holding baserunners. He prides himself on his craft and eagerly studies analytics.

THE FUTURE: Rutledge benefited from facing more experienced hitters at the alternate site. He is part of the Nationals’ future rotation plans and may see the upper minors in 2021

Rutledge told us that all of his pitches are works in progress, and he is putting in the reps on bettering his curveball and changeup. The fastball is blazing still at max speed of 100 mph. He said his changeup has gotten better recently based on the work he is putting in. As far as rankings go, he is more focused on the process and progress.

“I typically try to avoid looking at rankings and the hypothetical sort of things,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do. I try to just take it like I’m still the underdog like I was in junior college, and take that mindset where I have to work harder than everyone else to continue to climb. … Everything is a work in progress.”

This off-season will be an opportunity to work on the changeup and curveball as he is playing some spin catch and a lot of reps throwing both pitches to get more comfortable with them. The issue in college and the Minor Leagues was that his fastball was the “go to” pitch as they couldn’t always catch up to it, and you don’t throw as many changeups. At the Alternate Training site where you are facing batters with MLB experience and guys who have been around a long time like Yadiel Hernandez, they will spit on your fastball if it isn’t in the zone. In the Minors, they might be swinging at that same pitch below or above the zone.

For his pitch arsenal, Rutledge throws the Jordan Zimmermann quartet of four-seam fastball, tight slider, curveball, and changeup. At this point in time, there is no variations of different fastballs as the young righty is only working with the four-seam heater. The 21-year-old knows he has to turn his changeup into a ‘plus’ pitch to really step it up as he rises in minor league levels and hopefully into the Major Leagues as most project like Baseball America. As we know, the Nats new pitching coach, Jim Hickey, would like to see all of his starters throwing a good changeup. You can expect in the future that pitchers may not be moving up in the minors without a progression of their changeup.

Last week, Jessica Kleinschmidt on the A’s beat talked with Joe Ross who lives in the Bay area in the off-season. Ross acknowledged that he is “working on off-speed stuff, changeup especially.” For Rutledge, this is all part of his progression to having a four-pitch “plus” repertoire.

“I’m a huge believer in the changeup,” Hickey said. “I don’t force anybody to throw changeups … A lot of guys don’t like the changeup because it’s not a sexy pitch — it’s not a huge swing and a miss pitch for a lot of guys [who don’t throw it well]. “But there’s a lot of outs in there and there’s a lot of [pitch] efficiency in there and at the end of the year, there’s a lot more innings in there as well if you can do that.”

Pitch efficiency is a big issue with the modern pitcher. Also, breaking ball pitchers live and die by having their stuff working in a start. Hickey believes that fastballs and changeups are easier to control than breaking pitches. Maybe that has been a big part of Strasburg’s career where he mostly has relied on a blazing fastball, changeup and a curveball with a slider as his work-in-progress pitch. If you use Strasburg as an example, he has a great changeup in a three-pitch repertoire as he does not throw many sliders and his leading swing-and-miss pitch over his career has been the changeup. That pitch has induced a 28.46% swing and miss rate for his career with a 45.3% chase rate out of the zone through 2019.

“You all of a sudden get yourself into a 2-0 count in a tight spot, [and] it’s pretty difficult to just think you’re going to go ahead and drop this big breaking pitch into the strike zone for a called strike,” Hickey said. “Whereas a change-up, it’s a lot easier. And also I just like it because it obviously looks like a fastball, it comes out in that same plane as the fastball and hopefully has a little bit less velocity and a little bit more movement. I love it because when you can record those quick outs, it really starts giving you confidence.”

Brooks Baseball swing and miss chart for Stephen Srasburg

For those who are into analytics, Rutledge is right there with you. He has been training at the Cressey complex in Palm Beach County, Florida where Scherzer and other stars workout in the offseason. He uses the Rapsodo and TrackMan equipment as well as the video technology they have there.

“On my slider, I’m trying to get it to zero-zero for its gyroscopic spin, and trying to get it in a tight spread if you’re looking at an X/Y axis so that’s really the goal for me,” the right-handed pitcher said. “Obviously you can use the different gyro-degree and spin efficiency to help with that as those are factors into it. The goal here you’re shooting for is that horizontal and vertical break X/Y.”

One of the best experiences that the right-hander said that he has had was having a feel of a big league clubhouse at the Fredericksburg Alternate Training site and working with those coaches and the other pitchers as well as facing the same batters. He said that Jake Noll and Yasel Antuna were guys he faced often and Yadiel Hernandez worked him in at-bats. To get to this point at this stage of his career so quick was invaluable.

“Antuna is a phenomenal athlete and was a tough out,” Rutledge said. “Yadiel had some success against me early. He is a very experienced hitter. He knows what pitches to look for which is something I’ve never seen before. I’m used to the very aggressive minor league mindset so he was someone who looked at that fastball below the knees and said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to swing at that.’ And that was something I’ve never experienced before and definitely something to learn from them.”

Experience. That is what it takes for these prospects to progress. Clearly you could tell that Jackson Rutledge is a student of the game and is putting in the time to learn and spending his offseason in Florida to continue that work instead of being back in Missouri where he was last year at this time.

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