Image credit: (Photo by Karl Maasdam
Adley Rutschman knew he had to fix his swing. Oregon State coach Pat Casey asked the freshman catcher to focus on his defense in 2016 so that he could manage the Beavers’ elite pitching staff.
That’s just what he did, guiding OSU pitchers to a 1.93 ERA, the best in the nation. But Rutschman hit just .234 and knew something had to change if he was going to reach his goal of playing in the big leagues.
So after Oregon State’s season ended with a pair of disappointing losses to Louisiana State in the College World Series, Rutschman got to work overhauling his swing. It was work that he hadn’t had time to do before because he had always played football, including the previous fall when he was the Beavers’ kickoff specialist.
Rutschman started the overhaul in the Cape Cod League, where he continued to struggle. He hit .164 with two doubles in 20 games, and his struggles extended into the fall and winter. He was trying to improve his load so that he could see the ball better and create more explosive separation with his hips.
It was a long, gradual process, but eventually Rutschman found his swing while hitting in the batting cage during winter break.
“It took summer, fall and finally over winter break, it clicked for me as far as, ‘Wow it feels comfortable,’” Rutschman said. “It was at least a six-month deal for me.”
The results have been undeniable. Rutschman transformed from a light-hitting freshman into the most productive player in the country the last two years. He hit .408/.505/.628 as a sophomore and was named Most Outstanding Player at the CWS after guiding Oregon State to a national championship and setting a CWS record with 17 hits.
He has taken another step forward as a junior, and by the end of the season he will have rewritten much of the Oregon State record book, which currently is dominated by the likes of Michael Conforto, Jacoby Ellsbury and Nick Madrigal.
Rutschman’s offensive ability combined with his premium defensive skills and athleticism have made him not just the top player in this year’s draft class, but also the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010. It is, as much as anything, a testament to his focus, determination and competitiveness, traits that those around him have long seen.
Rutschman grew up playing football as well as baseball. When he was in fifth grade, he hurt his wrist, which should have sidelined him for a couple weeks. Instead, his father Randy said, he decided he would learn to be a kicker.
“He just went out and kicked and kicked and kicked,” Randy said.
As a high school senior, Rutschman kicked a 63-yard field goal, the fifth-longest ever by a high schooler. He also was an all-state linebacker and quickly found success as a kicker for the Beavers before his football career ended before his sophomore year.
So Rutschman was ready for the challenge of overhauling his swing. And it was a challenge. He said he had doubts, especially as he was struggling on the Cape. He resisted the urge to return to his old habits, even when his competitive nature made it difficult.
Ultimately, Rutschman tried a lot in search of what felt right.
“My philosophy, hitting-wise, is that a hitter needs to be as on time as much as possible,” he said. “If you’re not in a balanced position on time, it’s very hard to hit. I was trying to find a way to get into a good position on time. There are so many different loads, setups, that finding what works for me was crucial . . . I was working on that load and then the bat path.”
Rutschman worked on the process with the whole Oregon State staff—Casey and assistants Pat Bailey and Andy Jenkins. Each had a slightly different approach, which gave him access to different ideas. He also could get advice from his father, who caught at Linfield (Ore.), then an NAIA school, and has developed a strong reputation as a coach.
In the end, Bailey, who took over from Casey as head coach this year, said Rutschman didn’t make huge changes. He improved his posture at the plate, repositioning his back leg to give him a better base. He also worked on his pre-pitch movement and timing to get into that balanced position he believes is a key.
Once Rutschman locked in on his new swing, the transformation was immediate.
“His sophomore year, beginning to the end, he was consistent,” Bailey said. “We were calling him ‘Clutchman’ a third of the way through the season.”
Rutschman is a switch-hitter who works hard to maintain his swings from both sides of the plate and continues to improve it. The scouting report used to say that you wanted to turn him around from his natural lefthanded swing and make him hit righthanded. That wasn’t true in 2019.
This season Rutschman had gotten to his power more consistently overall and hit truly prodigious home runs all spring. He did so without compromising too much contact. His strikeout rate rose roughly two percentage points since 2018, when he also had greater lineup protection in the form of Cadyn Grenier, Trevor Larnach and Madrigal, all of whom were drafted in the top 40 picks a year ago.
Rutschman has never strayed this year from his disciplined approach, even as he is pitched around, subtly and not so subtly. He was averaging 1.28 walks per game, the most since Florida’s Brad Wilkerson averaged 1.33 in 1998, the height of Gorilla Ball.
Part of Rutschman’s plate discipline is a sheer force of will, a determination to not expand his strike zone and wait for a pitcher to come to him. But he also attributes it to the tracking drills he does when he spends a round of batting practice taking pitches so he can track their flight out of the pitcher’s hand.
“Some guys have better eyes than others, but it’s something you can work on,” he said. “The beautiful part of baseball is you can improve on everything.”
That might as well be Rutschman’s mantra. It helped him through a difficult offseason that began with a desire to clean up his swing and ultimately turned him into one of college baseball’s biggest offensive threats in just two years.
“He’s one of the most determined people I’ve been around in my life,” Randy Rutschman said. “If he decides to be good at something, he does it.”
It has always been like that for Rutschman. Randy said he never pushed baseball on Adley and wasn’t the reason his son became a catcher. Randy is the son of a coach himself—Ad Rutschman is in the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, won three football national titles at Linfield and a baseball national title, making him the only coach to have won national championships in both sports—and he was cognizant of not wanting to force anything on his son.
Adley simply liked to play outside—baseball, basketball, tag, anything. Sometimes when he would come home from a game, he would see a group of kids playing something in the neighborhood and demand his father stop and let him out of the car so he could join.
He has always been competitive, a trait he picked up as much from his mother Carol.
“Always, whether it’s Scrabble, ping pong or baseball, he’s got my wife’s dislike for losing and my love for winning,” Randy said.
Between that mindset and with Randy coaching the Corvallis Knights, a college summer ball team in the West Coast League and serving as an assistant coach under Bailey at Division II George Fox (Ore.), it is no wonder Adley gravitated to the game. He started playing any position, but by the time he was about 10 he started catching more because his coaches realized he could be counted on to catch the ball, a skill that isn’t easy to find at that age.
Rutschman took to catching well and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until much later that he truly fell in love with the position. Now, he relishes the strategy the position requires.
“(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 is advanced at every part of the game defensively. His arm has completely shut down opponents’ running game for three years. After he threw out 12 of 26 base stealers as a freshman, opponents have attempted just 34 stolen bases against him over the last two years. He blocks balls well, receives well, frames well and has always had a good feel for managing the Beavers’ pitching staff.
“The receiving piece is extremely advanced,” OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. “That’s going to play well outside of his bat and his throwing. He’s going to know how to handle guys. I asked him if he’s asked his parents for Rosetta Stone yet so he can get up to speed on Spanish. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a year he’s fairly fluent in Spanish. That’s the type of person he is.”
Rutschman takes his role in helping his pitching staff seriously. He played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer, but Oregon State’s national championship run delayed his arrival to the team’s complex in Cary, N.C. He led the team in hitting, picking up right where he left off in Omaha, but he impressed LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who was Team USA’s manager, with his presence as much as anything.
“Adley is one of those guys who’s just got the ‘it’ factor to the nth degree,” Mainieri said. “He’s cut right out of central casting. He’s got everything you look for in a ballplayer and a person.
“He made us better in a lot of ways. I think he picked everyone up around him. He was a true leader of our team.”
It is nearly impossible to find anyone to say anything bad about Rutschman. His play speaks for itself, but his character also earns top-of-the-scale marks. Mainieri is right—Rutschman is cut right out of central casting. Yeskie has taken to calling him Captain America and said if they remake “The Natural,” Rutschman could stand in for Robert Redford.
Bailey, who has known the Rutschmans since he was in high school, said it has been an honor to coach Adley.
Rutschman isn’t done yet in Corvallis. Even with all the draft talk swirling around him, he is almost single-mindedly focused on winning another national championship. The draft noise only leaks into his world when he opens social media.
So despite being the most famous college baseball player in the country, he can blend in.
Rutschman’s Oregon State teammates don’t take him for granted, and neither does Yeskie.
“I joke with guys from time to time,” he said. “If you’re (age) 8 to 80 and you live within earshot of Oregon State, you know Adley. Kids love him, grandmas love him. He personifies what’s good in college athletics and life in general.”
Rutschman said he looks up to Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Russell Wilson because of how they play the game and how they carry themselves on and off the field. If he even comes close to reaching his lofty potential in pro ball, he figures to make a similar impact on the game and in the city where he plays. Fans have seen it in Corvallis. Soon they’ll see it in the big leagues.