Sean Doolittle was impressed with what he saw from Jackson Rutledge when the 33-year-old reliever spent time at the Washington Nationals’ Alternate Training Site last month.
“Incredibly hard thrower,” Doolittle said of the Nats’ 2019 1st Round pick, a 21-year-old, 6’8’’ right-hander out of San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas, who was taken 17th overall two drafts back.
“Huge dude,” Doolittle added. “Fun to watch, I played catch with him a few times and I was like, jeez, man, he’s bringing it.”
When they were able to select Rutledge, Nationals’ Assistant GM and VP of Scouting Ops, Kris Kline, was thrilled that the towering pitcher was still on the board at No. 17.
“When I woke up yesterday, I didn’t think that we’d get Rutledge,” Kline said when he spoke with reporters that June. “But we did, and the whole group is absolutely thrilled to get this guy, 6’8’’, 250, big arm, above average secondary stuff, strike thrower, the whole package.
“He was supposed to go in the top 10, ended up getting down to where we pick, and like I said, the whole group, everybody in that room was absolutely thrilled to death.”
“First round talent and everybody in that room is extremely pleased that he was there when we picked at 17,” Kline added.
“All of his pitches, four pitch mix, they all come out of his hand in the same spot, same arm speed, and he’s got good stuff.”
In his first season in the Nationals’ system, Rutledge made 10 starts between the Gulf Coast League, NY/Penn League, and Low-A South Atlantic League, with a 3.13 ERA, 15 walks, and 39 Ks in 37 1⁄3 IP, but with the minor leagues shut down amidst the COVID pandemic, he’s in Fredericksburg this season, continuing his development as part of the club’s 60-Man Player Pool.
The positives of pitching in such a situation, in what should have been his first full year of professional baseball?
“It’s definitely different,” Rutledge acknowledged when he spoke with reporters on a Zoom from Fredericksburg on Saturday afternoon.
“I mean, just their plate discipline is at another level that I’ve kind of never seen before — where guys will see the ball, just a single ball off the plate, and they’ll be able to spit on it every time,” Rutledge said, “which is something pretty new for me, so seeing those guys and the ability to foul pitches off. If you execute a good slider where you want it to, they’ll still be able to foul it off, and so it’s a little bit tougher to get those guys out, especially the older, more experienced ones, but again I’m learning how to do that and continually getting better at it.”
While the situation isn’t ideal for anyone, Rutledge said the opportunity to spend a year with coaches from the organization giving hands-on instruction in a talent-rich environment has benefits.
“I think there definitely is,” he said. “During a real game there would be a little less room to focus on things that you need to improve, it’s more about competing and getting guys out and it’s still about that, what we’re doing is intrasquad games, but there’s definitely some room to really throw pitches that you wouldn’t normally throw in a competitive environment like a game. For instance, I’ve been working a lot on my changeup, so I’ve probably had a few outings where I’ve had a little bit more volume of changeups than I would in a 1-0 game in an actual season.”
His focus in Fredericksburg, Rutledge said, is, “just filling up the zone and going right at hitters and getting hitters out that way rather than trying to hit corners and be too fancy with things.”
While he’s still working with the same mix of pitches, he said he was, “... adjusting the volume of changeups, being I hardly threw any last year, and I’ve really been focusing on that as kind of the secondary I’m trying to get better at, and then aside from that it’s just been really working on commanding my fastball, getting it in the zone where I want it to [be] consistently.”
“With the command,” he added, “the main focus is just focus. When I’m playing catch I’m trying to hit the guy in the chest every time. When I’m doing plyo balls or whatever I’m doing, I have a target that I’m throwing at. In games I’ve adjusted my rhythm a little bit, I’ve slowed down, tried to really stay over my back leg more, and that’s helped me get better extension and be able to move the ball where I want it to better, and as far as the changeup, the biggest thing that I’ve changed is my intent on it, really trying to throw it off of my fastball at the knees, and kind of let the grip play and change 9-10 MPH and get that different sort of horizontal break on it.”
Rutledge said he’s also picked the brains of some of the veterans at the Alternate Site, and enjoyed talking to Doolittle while the reliever was rehabbing there.
“I got a chance to play catch with him a couple times. It’s definitely cool to kind of talk to him and see what thought process goes through his mind as he kind of works towards improving his fastball and how he did that.
“It was interesting having a conversation about his tempo on the mound and his rhythm and staying on his back side, and stuff of that nature, and I think I learned something from it and hopefully other guys did too.”
There’s also a sense of camaraderie developing among the players there, with several called up already to help the big league club, and more than a few MLB debuts, so the idea that it’s possible for them to make jump, especially this season, is there.
“It’s really exciting,” Rutledge said. “Even from the first guy who got called up we were all gathered in the same room watching it on one of our hotel TVs, and we’re all fired up for each other, and hopefully we get to see some more guys get called up and get their shot this season. And we really are, that’s all we’re here for, is working towards that goal of being an impact guy in the big leagues this year, and it’s exciting when it does happen, even if it’s not yourself. Seeing somebody work and get that shot.”