The best player in college baseball generated the definitive highlight of his season on Friday night, by doing essentially nothing in a play that did not determine the outcome of a game that his team went on to lose.
Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman found himself in the very definition of a clutch situation in the seventh inning of his team’s Friday-night matchup with the University of Cincinnati. Oregon State, the defending national champion and top seed in the four-team, double-elimination Corvallis regional, had trailed the Bearcats since the second inning in the equivalent of a 4-13 matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament.
There are many differences between baseball and basketball, but one of the definitive structural distinctions is that in baseball, a team can’t call a play for its star in big moments. Whoever in the nine-person lineup happens to come up with the game on the line gets to take the proverbial last shot. But as luck would have it, Rutschman’s turn came around in the bottom of the seventh inning, with the bases loaded, no outs, and Oregon State trailing 5-2. An extra-base hit would tie the game; a home run would put the Beavers up for the first time all night.
Cincinnati head coach Scott Googins didn’t give Rutschman the chance and called for an intentional walk. In major league history, there have been only two bases-loaded intentional walks, one to Barry Bonds in 1998, the other to Josh Hamilton in 2008, and both came with two outs in the ninth inning. Rutschman, who’d been preparing to dig in against Bearcats right-hander A.J. Kullman, turned back to the home plate umpire in disbelief, looked to first base, then back to the umpire, pulled off his elbow guard, and trudged off down the line.
Rutschman ended up scoring that go-ahead run later in the seventh inning, before Cincinnati—behind a 5-for-5 night from exquisitely named outfielder A.J. Bumpass—came back to win 7-6. But the bases-loaded intentional walk reverberated through the biggest upset of the first night of the NCAA tournament, even though it didn’t technically work. It solidified that Rutschman, like Bonds and Hamilton, was such a scary hitter the rules didn’t apply to him.
Oregon State lost again Saturday afternoon, almost certainly ending Rutschman’s college career. The 21-year-old hit .411/.575/.751 in his junior year, after hitting .408/.505/.628 as a sophomore. On Monday night, the Baltimore Orioles will probably call his name first in MLB’s first-year player draft, and if they don’t, they’ll be making a gigantic mistake.
The 2019 draft class is a little light on pitching, but features a Cheesecake Factory–size menu of exciting position players in the top half of the first round. California first baseman Andrew Vaughn, the defending Golden Spikes Award winner, is one of the most polished college hitters in years, while toolsy Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt (son of the Rangers pitcher of the same name) would be the no. 1 prospect most seasons.
But even among these hitters, Rutschman stands out. He’s the top player on the board at MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, and FanGraphs, which has his overall future value grade at 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale, the joint-highest grade they’ve given out to a prospect since the rankings started in 2015, and a full grade above any other player in this year’s class. In the past week, both Teddy Cahill of Baseball America and Jim Callis of MLB.com called Rutschman the best draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010. Callis rated him the seventh-best prospect since 1987.
Rutschman’s bat gets the most focus, and it should. Position players don’t make it to the top of a draft board unless they can absolutely rake. He ended the NCAA regular season with the best OBP in Division I, and finished in the top 10 in batting average and SLG, all despite playing in the demanding Pac-12. Rutschman walked exactly twice as often as he struck out (76 to 38) and hit 17 home runs, 10 doubles, and a triple in just 57 games. Last year, Rutschman was named most outstanding player of the College World Series after driving in 13 runs in eight games and setting a College World Series record with 17 hits.
But what sets Rutschman apart is his all-around game. Last week, Zach Kram wrote about Vaughn’s complicated prospect profile. He looks like a special hitter, but if he’s going to go in the top five picks of the draft, he’d better be, because he offers essentially zero value as a defender or baserunner. There is limited precedent for right-handed-hitting college first basemen turning into all-star-level players (Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, Pete Alonso), but none is as small as Vaughn, who’s listed at 5-foot-11 or 6 feet, depending on the source, and none went anywhere near this high in the draft.
Rutschman, however, is not only a catcher, but a good defender behind the dish, and a switch hitter to boot. The only skill he doesn’t have is speed—at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Rutschman looks as clunky and steam-powered on a dead run as his last name sounds (“Rutsch-man, Rutsch-man, Rutsch-man”)—but that’s not essential for a catcher. He frames well, blocks well, and throws extremely well.
Vaughn has a slightly better hit tool, and considering how much easier it is to play first base than catcher, he could end up outproducing Rutschman as a big league hitter. (Though it’s worth noting that Rutschman outhit the Cal first baseman in all three slash categories, walked more frequently, and hit more home runs while playing in the same conference this year.) But Rutschman doesn’t need to outhit Vaughn to be the better player overall, because the offensive bar for a good defensive catcher is lower than at any other position in baseball.
Rutschman’s defense and his offensive track record against good amateur competition give him an exceptionally high floor. After a lull in the college catching ranks, 2007 kicked off a run of three straight years in which a college catcher went in the top five picks. Here’s a list of every college catcher who’s gone in the top five picks since.
Catchers Drafted in Top Five Since 2007
|2007||5||Matt Wieters||Orioles||Georgia Tech||18.4|
|2008||5||Buster Posey||Giants||Florida State||41.2|
|2009||4||Tony Sanchez||Pirates||Boston College||0.1|
|2018||2||Joey Bart||Giants||Georgia Tech||n/a|
Bart, obviously, is still a work in progress a year after he was drafted. But the other five players on the list give a reasonable distribution of expectations for a high-level catching prospect: Schwarber can hit but not catch, while Zunino is the opposite. Wieters is in his 11th season and has made four All-Star teams, Posey is the best catcher of his generation, and Sanchez was a total bust, the only one of the group who’s failed to become a productive big leaguer.
Schwarber is the last college catcher to have anything approaching Rutschman’s offensive upside, and the Cubs picked him ahead of the likes of Aaron Nola and Michael Conforto despite knowing that he’d probably end up as a first baseman or DH. Bryce Harper, who caught for a year at the College of Southern Nevada, could technically be classified as this type of draft prospect, but the Nationals drafted him as an outfielder and never even bothered with the pretense of putting him behind the plate; Schwarber, God bless him, managed to play 25 big league games behind the dish. Even if Rutschman completely forgot how to catch tomorrow, he’d still be a first-round prospect at any other defensive position.
Zunino’s offensive struggles in the big leagues are both surprising and somewhat overstated. He was a fearsome hitter at Florida, batting .371/.442/.674 with 19 home runs as a sophomore and .322/.394/.669 with 19 more home runs as a junior. Zunino, however, never exhibited Rutschman’s hit tool or command of the zone, which might explain how he ended up as a career .208/.275/.406 hitter in the big leagues. But even though he makes less contact than anyone this side of Jodie Foster (who made Contact only once), Zunino’s power gives him a career OPS+ of 88. That isn’t good, but coupled with above-average defense behind the plate, it’s made him an average-to-above-average player overall in the course of seven big league seasons.
If Rutschman pans out as both a hitter and a defender, Posey’s career would easily be within his grasp. Posey, who played shortstop and pitched at Florida State before moving behind the dish full time as a college sophomore, was a better athlete as a prospect than Rutschman, but not quite as polished an all-around player. (Posey’s .463/.566/.879 line as a junior came with old-school metal bats that might as well have been rocket launchers.) There’s a nontrivial chance that Rutschman will turn out to be even better. A less enthusiastic view of Rutschman’s skill set might reveal comparisons to Wieters or Yasmani Grandal (no. 12 overall in 2010 out of Miami), both switch-hitting All-Star catchers who contributed on both sides of the ball.
So what happened to Sanchez? Well, it might seem like cherry-picking to say he wasn’t considered the fourth-best player in the draft at the time, but it’s true. The Pirates found themselves with the fourth pick in a three-player draft: San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg went first overall, then North Carolina infielder Dustin Ackley, then toolsy high school outfielder Donavan Tate. All three commanded bonuses north of $6 million. After those picks, the talent leveled out, and for the rest of the draft only three high school pitchers with serious college commitments—Zack Wheeler, Jacob Turner, and Tyler Matzek—got a bonus of more than $3 million.
So rather than take the fourth-best player in the draft and pay him like the fourth-best player in the draft, the Pirates chose Sanchez, a safe-looking catcher prospect out of Boston College, signed him for cheap ($2.5 million), and earmarked the rest of their amateur bonus money for a group of high school arms later in the draft, plus the record-setting bonus they’d set aside for a then-16-year-old Miguel Sanó. Sanchez never learned to hit pro pitching, Pittsburgh’s later picks didn’t pan out, and Sanó’s deal fell through in humiliating fashion for the team. So, not great all around. The next two years, the Pirates, having learned their lesson, stopped screwing around and paid out big bonuses to Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, respectively.
If anything, the Sanchez story is even more of a reason for the Orioles to take Rutschman because it’s an argument for taking the best player on the board instead of trying to get cute. And while Sanchez is the kind of player who gets called “safe” because no individual skill stuck out, Rutschman is considered a safe prospect because even as a college junior, he’s very close to being big-league-ready. In this case, safety does not preclude the possibility of the spectacular.
The uncertainty that surrounds amateur baseball scouting makes drafting an exercise in compromise. A player with elite offensive tools might lack defensive value, or a player with a track record of success against high-level competition might not have the same potential as an explosive but raw high-schooler. There is no such compromise for Rutschman, who has hit .400 with power against top-end college competition for two straight years, while playing elite defense at the toughest position on the diamond and demonstrating the skills and physical tools necessary to adapt to big league competition.
Almost every other prospect in recent draft history required projection and imagination; at best, an amateur ballplayer gives scouts something to dream about. There’s no dreaming necessary in Rutschman’s case, just a little time.