Washington Nationals’ 2019 first round pick, Jackson Rutledge, a 6’8’’ right-hander, was the second-highest ranked right-handed pitcher and third-highest ranked arm overall on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top prospects in the 2019 Draft class. He was still on the board after 16 other teams made their selections, so the Nationals’ made the 20-year-old righty their top pick, at No. 17 overall.
It turns out Rutledge and the Nationals knew each other well.
“They had kind of been on the radar for a little bit,” Rutledge said in a conference call with reporters after he was picked by the Nats.
“They’ve been at just about every game of mine, so you know I kind of had a relationship with their scouting department.”
Rutledge, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, played one season at the University of Arkansas, going (3-0) with a 3.45 ERA in 12 games, (three starts), and 15 2⁄3 innings pitched for the Razorbacks in 2018, but he had a hip issue which eventually required surgery.
He transferred to San Jacinto [Junior] College in Texas, where he went (9-2) with a 0.87 ERA in 13 starts and 82 2⁄3 IP in 2019, over which he had 134 strikeouts.
“His 0.87 ERA led all of NJCAA Division 1,” the Nationals’ press release on his selection noted, “while his 134 strikeouts were good for second and his 14.59 strikeouts per 9.0 innings pitched ranked sixth.
“He tossed four complete games (two shutouts), allowed just one home run and issued just 30 walks in 2019.”
“I had some issues with my hip in my season in Arkansas,” Rutledge explained. “I ended up having surgery on it, I had a torn labrum, so kind of that led to the decision. I figured it was going to be a safer route, to go to ‘San Jac’, to go somewhere I knew that I could develop.
“And I knew that going into this year I would have an opportunity, so looking back on it, it was a great decision.”
The Nationals were watching closely all along.
“We had scouted him a lot since his Arkansas days. We had to have seen him probably about 12 games this year start,” Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said in a separate conference call following the completion of the first round of the 2019 Draft.
“He never missed a beat. His stuff never wavered. He was extremely efficient and consistent throughout the season.”
“He showed power stuff,” Rizzo added. “Mid-to-upper 90s fastball, with a good hard slider, a good curveball and a developing change. His command is vastly improved since he was a younger pitcher.
“He’s finally growing into that big body of his and we think that he’s just scratching the surface.”
“First round talent and everybody in that room is extremely pleased that he was there when we picked at 17,” Assistant GM and VP of Scouting Kris Kline said.
“He’s got a good package for a starting pitcher,” Rizzo said. “He’s a big physical guy, with good arm action. He’s got a quick arm. He’s got power stuff.”
How did Rutledge describe his own stuff and the improvements he’s made in the last few years?
“Really just about every one of my pitches I’ve worked on and improved this past year, with the slider being the big one,” he said, “because that wasn’t a pitch that I threw up until late last summer.
“This Spring was the first time I’ve thrown that and obviously it’s been really successful, then the curveball, again, what I kind of did is I had a slurve last year and I broke that off into the slider and a curveball, the curveball is still continuing to get better, but I think the slider is going to be my best pitch.
“And then the changeup was actually something I worked on this past winter and changed my grip around a little bit. Learned a grip while playing catch with Ross Detwiler, so he showed me that and it’s been the most successful changeup I’ve thrown and I’m confident in it right now.”
Detwiler? The St. Louis-born, Nationals’ 2006 1st Round pick? Is he helping the Nationals’ front office with their scouting now?
[ed. note - “He’s not, Detwiler is still plying his trade at Triple-A in the Chicago White Sox’ organization right now.”]
“Those St. Louis guys stick together,” Rizzo joked, “and [Rutledge’s] slider is developing, it looks like it’s on the come.
“It’s a four pitch mix with this guy, he pounds the strike zone, he’s an aggressive pitcher, 95-99, touch 100, and he’s got a good, hard slider in the upper 80s and low 90s, and a really good snapping curveball, and like I said, a developing change and throws strikes, he’s got a great package as a starting pitcher, needs polish and needs some reps, but a guy that comes from a prestigious junior college that has had some terrific pitchers in the past, Roger Clemens amongst them, and this guy is a guy that we’re glad to have in the system, and guy that we feel can help us in the big leagues and impact the team.”
“I grew up in St. Louis,” Rutledge said, “so I was a Cardinals fan for most of my life.
“I guess I’m no longer a Cardinals fan, but I just really wanted to go to wherever I could make a difference.
“I think Washington is definitely a place I can step in and be a guy, so I’m excited for that and looking forward to it.”