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Jackson Rutledge Rockets Into Day 1 MLB Draft Conversation

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Jackson Rutledge while at Arkansas. (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Coming out of his suburban St. Louis high school in 2017, righthander Jackson Rutledge looked like he was more than ready for pro ball.

The Rockwood Summit High senior stood 6-foot-8 and had already outgrown his father, John, who is 6-foot-5 and played ball in college.

It wasn’t just size that attracted scouts to Rutledge. His fastball routinely sat in the low 90s with excellent sinking life. He checked in at No. 183 on Baseball America’s ranking of prospects for the 2017 draft, which would have put him squarely in the middle of the sixth round.

But the timing wasn’t quite right.

“He was not ready for the draft out of high school,” John said, “just maturity wise.”

So Rutledge got to campus at Arkansas, where the plan was to play three years, continue developing on and off the field and get drafted in 2020. Plans change.

Rutledge tweaked his hip early in February and never felt quite right during his freshman season. Before a series against Alabama in March, the pain flared up, but Rutledge wanted to play through it. “I used to call him one-track because he just had this one-track mind,” John said. “He didn’t want to shut it down and we didn’t know how bad the hip was.”

Rutledge threw just 11 pitches in a Sunday game against Alabama—walking the only two batters he saw. Shortly after that, Rutledge went to see an orthopedist, who told him he had a torn hip labrum. His season was done. But that didn't stop Rutledge from continuing to work.

“(Jackson) works his butt off,” John said. “I rehab houses for a living, and if you put him into a house doing demo—he’ll tear the whole house apart in a day. He doesn't have a quit button.”

At Arkansas, one of the team trainers called Rutledge “Big Puddle” because of what he would leave in his trail at the gym. Back in high school, Rutledge started working with Brian DeLunas at Premier Pitching Performance (P3). DeLunas is now the Mariners’ bullpen coach.

John would pick his son up from practice in the afternoon and have food waiting in the car so he could eat on the way over to P3 to do his lifting and throwing program. He’s always been ready and willing to work.

Following his hip injury, Rutledge went back to work with P3 over the summer, like he usually did. This time it was not as a trainee, but as an intern.

“I basically ran the Rapsodo machine and tracked data,” Rutledge said. “Helped some guys out and basically learned a lot. That was the main thing. (It) made a huge difference.”

Prior to the summer, Rutledge threw a fastball, a changeup and a breaking ball that was half curveball, half slider.

“I would throw a slurve-type pitch and it was kind of . . . it was not very good,” Rutledge said, laughing. “I tried to make a legitimate true slider and also break that into two pitches—keep the curveball and make it an actual curveball and make an actual slider.”

So when Rutledge was cleared to start throwing again, he knew how the Rapsodo technology worked. And he knew how he could use it to take his game to the next level.

“It shows you the spin efficiency, which is the big thing with the slider,” Rutledge said. “You’re aiming for a really low spin efficiency on that. And then a high one with the curveball.

“With my slider, the one I was throwing before, it was like 60-70 percent which is kind of in-between and not very good. It really gives you feedback. So if you throw a pitch, you can feel how it comes out of your hand and then you go look at the screen and it shows you that was 12 percent or whatever. Then you (try to) repeat that. That sort of thing.”

Now armed with four distinct pitches, Rutledge was ready to get back on the mound. But his time at Arkansas was over. After his injury, he wanted to be more cautious and stay healthy. He decided going to San Jacinto (Texas) JC was the right route for 2019.

If Rutledge honors his Kentucky commitment, he could be on track for the 2020 draft.

Again, plans change.

Rutledge entered this season ranked No. 95 on the BA preseason draft list. Scouts knew who he was out of high school, knew he had a big arm with a big frame to back it up. But his lack of much college track record was a concern. His control, after walking more than six batters per nine innings in his brief stint with Arkansas, was a concern. His injury history was another concern.

It took no time to start easing those concerns. From Rutledge’s first start, scouts knew they were looking at one of the nation’s best arms.

“Surreal has been the word this year,” John said. “We had zero expectations . . . So we were blown away by the attention that he’s gotten so far this spring.”

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Rutledge is throwing his fastball in the upper 90s and holding that velocity deep into his outings. His walks are down, and some scouts even go as far as projecting all four of his pitches—including his newly developed slider—as plus. Through 11 starts he had recorded a 1.02 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 70. 2 innings.

“I think from when he got here to now, he’s light years ahead of where he was when he came in, as far as the pitching,” said Woody Williams, a 15-year major league veteran who now helps coach at San Jac. “His makeup on the mound, his repertoire, how he’s attacking hitters and even his whole body composition has changed. He’s put on some good muscle and shaped up his body really nice.”

While Rutledge’s physicality and overwhelming pure stuff sticks out immediately when you seem him, it’s the small details that really matter in terms of his development.

He improved his squat form to implement his back side more efficiently on the mound. He emphasized nutrition and ditched a previous eating routine of “trying to crush as much pasta as I can.” He learned to cook and became more health-conscious. He went through meticulous pregame and postgame routines to warm up and cool down.

“Every little thing makes a difference,” Rutledge said. “Even if it’s a small difference, it still makes a difference.”

With fewer than two months before the 2019 draft, Rutledge is about to see all of that attention to detail and curiosity on and off the field pay off. He ranks in the middle of the first round on BA’s most recent draft ranking. He has a chance to be the highest-drafted junior college pitcher this century, a distinction that currently belongs to righthander Phil Bickford, whom the Giants took 18th overall in 2015.

“We have had some very good players come through here,” Williams said. “To me, Jackson is right at the top. Come June, someone is going to be very, very fortunate to get him. Because to me he is a first-rounder.

“From what I’ve been around when I was playing to now—the kid is light years ahead of most kids his age.”

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