A Little Of Everything
With the final out of the College World Series nestled in his catcher’s mitt and Oregon State the newly minted national champions, Adley Rutschman went charging out to the pitcher’s mound in jubilation.
There, he met Beavers righthander Kevin Abel, who had thrown a two-hit shutout against Arkansas in the decisive third game of the finals, and his football training took over.
Rutschman wrapped up Abel and pushed him off the mound to start the celebratory dogpile with a tackle his old football coaches would be proud of. Rutschman said he was just trying to get Abel down to the ground safely, but he looked more like an all-state linebacker laying out a quarterback.
“Obviously, I’m going to put a little form into it, if I can,” Rutschman said. “Got to show the football side a little bit, even though I’m a washed-up vet.”
Amid a star-studded field in Omaha, Rutschman was the best player in the tournament. He outshone his teammates Cadyn Grenier, Trevor Larnach and Nick Madrigal—all of whom were drafted in the top 40 picks this year—to be named Most Outstanding Player at the CWS. He earned that honor by setting a CWS record with 17 hits, and he drove in 13 runs while hitting .567/.650/.867 to help lead Oregon State to its third national title.
After Rutschman’s dynamic All-America season, the CWS proved to be his coming-out party. He has an impressive all-around skill set that makes the rising junior an early favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. Listed at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, he is an athletic, physical, switch-hitting catcher who has an advanced approach at the plate and burgeoning power. He is an excellent defender with an elite arm and handles a pitching staff well. In short, he is just about everything scouts look for in a catcher.
Rutschman, whose father, Randy, and grandfather Ad are both coaches, wants to get even better. He has a laundry list of things he wants to work on this summer while he’s playing with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. As for the early draft buzz, he’s not worried about it.
“All of that stuff is kind of noise,” Rutschman said. “For me, it’s about sticking with the process and staying with the process and trying to improve myself mentally and physically every day as much as I can to reach as much potential as I have.”
Rutschman’s 2018 performance in Omaha was in stark contrast to his showing a year earlier as a freshman, when he went 1-for-15. That year-over-year improvement was in line with Rutschman’s whole season. As a sophomore, he hit .408/.505/.628 with nine home runs, 53 walks and 40 strikeouts. He set single-season program records for hits (102, breaking Jacoby Ellsbury’s mark) and RBIs (83). That was a marked improvement from his freshman year, when he impressed behind the plate, but hit .234/.322/.306 with two home runs, 27 walks and 39 strikeouts.
Oregon State coach Pat Casey said he believes the key to Rutschman’s improvement was his decision to quit football and focus on baseball for the first time.
“He’s done a good job taking care of some of the things he struggled with last year,” Casey said. “Some of those guys who don’t get to play a lot of baseball in high school get the chance to blow up.”
Rutschman committed to Oregon State to play baseball, but in the summer before his freshman year in Corvallis, he was invited to try out for the football team. He had been a star at Sherwood (Ore.) High, where he earned all-state honors at kicker and linebacker. He stood out most to college recruiters as a kicker, and as a prep senior he connected on a state-record 63-yard field goal.
Rutschman wasn’t sure what to expect at the tryout but figured he’d give it a shot.
“I was like, ‘Sure, why not? Let’s see how it goes,’ ” Rutschman said. “Because it’s a great experience either way. I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team or not. I practiced a little bit, went out to fall camp. They kept me on.”
After the first game of the season, Rutschman took over as the Beavers’ kick-off specialist, a role he held the rest of the year. That meant he couldn’t spend much time playing fall ball, cutting into his developmental time. That was nothing new for Rutschman, who said he never played fall baseball growing up.
What time Rutschman did spend on baseball during the fall of 2016, he spent working on his defense. Oregon State had to replace Logan Ice, a three-year starter before he was drafted in the supplemental second round in 2016, and needed a sure-handed player behind the plate.
“They needed someone to lead behind the dish and be a wall back there and command the field,” Rutschman said. “Case told me the hitting will come, but you need to be able to handle the staff.”
It was a lot to ask of a freshman, but Rutschman handled the responsibility. He has a great catcher’s frame, and his athleticism helps him block pitches well. He is a strong receiver and has a well above-average arm.
The Beavers have recorded a 2.64 team ERA over the last two years, a testament to their pitchers, but also their comfort with throwing to Rutschman.
“He’s unbelievable back there,” starter Bryce Fehmel said. “He’s going to block every single ball that you throw in the dirt and he’s going to throw out every runner that he has a chance to. Having him back there gives us a chance to win every game.”
Rutschman grew up catching, but it wasn’t until he was a high school senior that he truly enjoyed the position. Now he relishes the strategy of catching and has put in the work to refine his game. He has improved as a blocker and receiver but has also made a jump at the finer points of catching, learning how to make in-game adjustments against opposing hitters and studying swings.
“(Initially), you’re not very good at (catching) because you don’t have good technique and you’re just getting hit all the time and you’re like, ‘Why would this ever be fun?’ ” he said. “But once the game starts to speed up and you get college pitching and you’re actually working with guys, it becomes a game and it starts to be fun.”
Rutschman’s most noticeable strides this year were in the batter’s box. He agrees with Casey’s assessment that giving up football was important to his development but says it didn’t lead to automatic improvement. Instead, his focused attention on baseball provided more opportunities to make adjustments to his game and commit those changes to muscle memory.
College Baseball Takeaways: Texas, Stanford Win Thrilling Openers
In an atmosphere befitting a series of that magnitude, the Longhorns claimed game 1 with a tight, 5-4 victory.
Rutschman broke down his swing and made some key mechanical changes. He changed his load and his stance, especially the position of his hands to enable his bat to stay in the zone longer. But beyond those changes, he also had another year or experience and more of an understanding of how pitchers wanted to attack him.
As a result, Rutschman went from being a glove-first catcher to a middle-of-the-order threat.
“Whether I played football or not, I would have improved,” Rutschman said. “But it allowed for a much bigger change, and that’s the biggest reason why I did it.”
That decision paid dividends in a big way this spring, as Rutschman’s trophy case can attest. And it will continue to pay off in the future as he continues to improve his game. He’ll be the focal point of the Beavers’ offense in 2019 as they seek to repeat as national champions. He’ll be closely watched by scouts as he looks to surpass Madrigal (whom the White Sox selected fourth overall) as the highest drafted player in program history.
Oregon State has had some great players during Casey’s 24-year tenure as head coach, from Ellsbury to Michael Conforto to Madrigal. Rutschman figures to take his place among the Beavers’ greats.
“There’s something special about the way he catches, the way he gets the pitchers under his arm and gets them going and how he controls the game,” Casey said. “And now the offensive pieces jump.
“He’s such a worker. His aptitude to do things is off the chart. He’s intelligent. And it doesn’t hurt to be 6-foot-2, 216 pounds. So the gene pool is pretty good there.”
Rutschman’s career arc has already been extraordinary and it has people around the game excited to see what the future holds for the 20-year-old. After an unforgettable end to his 2018 season, he’ll be working hard to top it next spring.