The Washington Post
Rutledge knows who he is. Now he wants to show the Nats.
west palm beach, fla. — Back in mid-february, before his first live batting practice session of spring training, Jackson Rutledge paced around the dugout and muttered to himself. Then he sat on the metal bench, removed his hat and bowed his head, eyes closed. Then he paced again. Then he asked for the time, grinning lightly when told it was 11:11 a.m., maybe making a silent wish to strike everyone out. Then he plugged his catcher, Brady Lindsly, for info ahead of a simulated inning that would unfold with no umpire, scoreboard or record keeping, unless you count the data Rutledge would pore over to see how his new cutter played off his fastball and a slider that, in his words, really moves more like a curve.
“Hey, hey,” Rutledge whispered to get Lindsly’s attention. “You see what Hassell did? I saw the other guys hit, but I don’t know much about Hassell.”
“Likes to go the other way,” Lindsly answered. “Left-center is his power alley.”
“Got it, okay,” Rutledge said, staring at the ground. “Four minutes left. Guess it’s time for the anthem.”
If this sounds like a chaotic lead-up to facing teammates on a backfield, that’s how it felt in the moment. And no, there was no anthem before Rutledge took the mound against James Wood, T. J. White, Brady House, Elijah Green and Robert Hassell III. But after trying to fit in last season — after everyone told him he belonged, after they told him to relax — Rutledge realized he just has to be himself.
Relaxed, to the 23-year-old Rutledge, is appearing extremely unrelaxed. Belonging, in his eyes, means treating live batting practice as if it were his major league debut.
“The more amped up I am, the more relaxed I feel,” said Rutledge, the Nationals’ first-round pick in 2019. “That’s why you saw me walking around a lot, breathing heavy, probably sweating a ton before I even threw a pitch. I figured out midway through last summer that that’s who I am, and that’s okay. It was pretty freeing, to be honest.”
Rutledge spent all of last season with the low Class A Fredericksburg Nationals, clicking with a 2.40 ERA in five August starts. Since he was drafted out of junior college, the 6-foot-8 righty has battled a handful of minor injuries, slowing his progress toward pitching in D.C. On one hand, the health issues have led to perhaps unfair prospect fatigue, pushing Rutledge behind Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry in the public consciousness. But on the other, availability is a critical tool for pitchers, leaving Rutledge a lot to prove still.
Pitching through May, June, July and August last year was a good start. Adding a cutter to attack lefties inside is encouraging, too. After instructs last fall, the player development staff gave Rutledge three different cutters to consider. He then turned that into a winter project, testing grips at Premier Pitching Performance, a workout facility near St. Louis. That’s how his arsenal expanded to five pitches: the cutter, a fourseam fastball, a sinker, change-up and slider.
“I feel like the cutter is going to be huge with lefties,” Rutledge said. “I plan to use it how I use my sinker to righties, to bust them up and in. They seem to not like that too much. I have listened to [former Nationals reliever] Blake Treinen talk about his stuff, about how he doesn’t throw anything away from hitters. Cutters in and sinkers in. That’s what I want to do.”
To this point of spring training, the Nationals have mostly had Rutledge face teammates in simulated innings. He was added to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from being taken in the Rule 5 Draft. His most likely landing spots for April are high Class A Wilmington or Class AA Harrisburg. There is no need to rush him, especially with depth starters Cory Abbott, Paolo Espino and Jake Irvin ahead of him on the 40-man.
But on Wednesday, Rutledge traveled to Lakeland, Fla., and pitched the fifth and sixth innings in an exhibition against the Detroit Tigers. He missed high with some fastballs and left two sliders in the middle of the plate. Statcast did not track any cutters. His four-seamer averaged 97 mph and topped out at 98.2, a good sign for what his velocity could be at the start of the season. He yielded a walk, a hit, an earned run and struck out two.
“It seems like we’ve had him for a long time but ... he’s only 23 years old,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “So we still have time to develop him, and we’re going to use all the time we can.”
A former intern at Premier Pitching Performance, Rutledge loves analytics more than most. In the past, though, coaches and teammates have noted that his obsession with numbers can lead to far too much thinking on the mound.
Yet Rutledge is learning to blend science with art. While facing that group of top prospects in February, he sometimes bent his knees quickly or swung his glove from hip to hip before delivering. Asked about it later, he laughed, saying he didn’t know where those quirks came from. A past version of Rutledge may have ironed them out for the sake of uniformity. Now? He’s fine with searching for rhythm on the fly.
“I’m not trying to go out every day and be like, ‘Oh, does this look good to everybody? Am I acting the right way? Am I relaxed enough?’ ” Rutledge said. “I can only act like me.”