It’s been just over a month since the Washington Nationals selected towering pitcher Jackson Rutledge in the first round of the MLB Draft out of San Jacinto.
The 6’8” right-hander vaulted into first-round contention after a dominant season in the JuCo circuit at San Jac. During the 2019 season, he posted a stellar 0.87 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in his 13 starts, striking out a ridiculous 134 in 82.2 innings while walking just 30.
The Nats were clearly impressed enough to make him the 17th overall selection in the draft, delighted that he was able to fall to them at that spot.
“First round talent,” Assistant GM and VP of Scouting Ops Kris Kline said on draft night. “Everybody in that room is extremely pleased that he was there when we picked at 17.”
He was the first ever Nationals selection to actually be in New York City, attending the draft at MLB Network in person with his family as the commissioner called his name out. It was clearly an experience that he’ll never forget.
“It was an incredible experience,” Rutledge said of his draft day adventure. “The whole weekend, I got to go walk around New York, see a lot of cool stuff that I wouldn’t usually go see.”
“Then talking to all the professional guys, all the representatives like Randy Johnson, Nick Swisher. Nick Swisher was incredible to talk to.”
Even though there were some nerves as the first round went on, when the Nationals finally made the call, he couldn’t wait to get going with the organization.
“I was definitely amped up,” Rutledge said of his emotions on the day. “Once the draft got started, the nerves started to kick in big time, but hearing my name was a big relief.”
One aspect of Rutledge’s game that really stood out in the lead-up to the draft was how he was able to generate such high velocity - evidenced by his mid-90s fastball that can touch the upper-90s - with a fairly short delivery.
“That’s definitely my natural arm slot,” Rutledge explained about his short delivery. “Before it got to that, I was forcing it to be a long arm swing, which was causing other problems, it being late, kind of messing with my timing, and all that stuff.”
He’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of other majors leaguers who have had success with the shorter action.
That group includes former Nats farmhand, Lucas Giolito, who made the All-Star team this year. It also includes Joe Kelly, who Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez compared Rutledge to on draft night.
“You see a handful of guys that are really high-level pitchers in the big leagues that are starting to go to a shorter arm swing,” Rutledge noted. “I think that’s something that will benefit me being kind of ahead of that.”
A couple of weeks after the draft, Rutledge officially signed his first professional contract. He made the trip to Nats Park - his first trip to the nation’s capital and hopefully, not his last - to seal the deal.
“It was cool getting to visit those guys,” Rutledge said of his trip to Nationals Park. “They’re all really nice guys and wanted to get to know me, give me a little bit of advice, which was cool.”
“I got to talk to Davey Martinez for a while and he had a lot of good stuff to say to help me out as I get started.”
After everything was signed, sealed, and delivered, the right-hander went down to the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach as he hoped to get back into the groove following a couple of months not pitching while the draft process played out.
“Right now, it’s just getting back into sync, getting back into feeling those secondary pitches,” Rutledge said of what he’s hoping to accomplish this season. “The slider was a lot better in my last outing, the changeup is getting a lot better.”
“So just improving those things and then learning how to play pro ball because it is a big difference adjusting to that mentally and physically.”
While Rutledge has the big fastball and power slider as the main weapons in his arsenal, his other pitches are going to be important to his development in the minors.
One of those other pitches is his changeup, a pitch he actually learned from a former National as last winter, he worked with Ross Detwiler, a fellow Missouri native.
“I was working out with him this winter and happened to find a day where we were getting ready to throw at the same time and play catch,” Rutledge explained. “He eventually just showed me what he did, showed me what he changed that past year with his changeup.”
“I ended up messing with it and playing around with it and now I’m still throwing that pitch.”
Not too long after Rutledge made it down to Florida, he made his pro debut with the GCL Nationals, allowing three runs on four hits, walking one, and striking out two.
A promotion to short-season ball with the Auburn Doubledays followed. Unfortunately, his Doubledays debut was another rough one as he allowed two earned runs on three hits and two walks, striking out just the one in two innings of work.
So what does the right-hander think that he needs to improve on moving forward?
“Really controlling the game, setting up my pace,” Rutledge said ahead of his second Doubledays outing on Monday. “It’s kind of hard to do when you’re behind in counts, which I was a lot. I had a lot of three-ball counts, which isn’t helpful.”
“I’m going to try and stay ahead of guys so I can control the game and control it at my pace, make hitters more uncomfortable because of that.”
The results don’t always come straight away for first-year players, especially pitchers because of the drastic change in schedule. They start throwing almost every day in pro ball compared to just gearing up for weekend games in college ball.
Adapting to the new schedule is one of the main messages that Doubledays manager Rocket Wheeler is emphasizing for Rutledge and the rest of his players in short-season.
“The bottom line is routines,” Wheeler said. “It’s all a process that these kids are learning routines and what they have to do on an everyday basis because we’re playing seven days a week down here. We very seldom get a day off.”
The new everyday routine is something that Rutledge is particularly excited about as he begins his venture into professional baseball.
“I’m really just excited to see how far I can push myself, see what kind of small stuff I can get better at every day,” Rutledge said.
“It’s 24/7 working, so every single thing counts, just keep getting better and recovering and I’m really excited to get to figure out what works for me and how well I can prepare.”
Nobody doubts that Rutledge has all of the physical tools to become a huge success at the major league level. Now, it’s time for him to get to work in the minor leagues and harness all that raw talent on his journey to the big leagues.