When Buck Showalter managed the Baltimore Orioles, he was no stranger to young talent with players like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop headlining his lineup.
In the midst of their rebuild, the Orioles are loading up on young talent — and the face of that youth movement is catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 MLB Draft.
Rutschman will start the 2021 season in the minors, with no official time frame for his call-up to the major leagues. He entered the season as the No. 2 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America.
The 23-year-old catcher had 30 plate appearances in spring training, posting a .231 batting average with a total of six hits, four of which were doubles. According to Showalter, the quickest way for prospects to expedite their call-up to Baltimore when he managed the team was with defense.
“The thing that separated us with Manny and Jonathan Schoop and some of those guys was their ability to defend,” Showalter said on Glenn Clark Radio April 1. “Guys are going to struggle offensively.”
One of the most challenging adjustments for minor leaguers entering the majors is the higher quality of pitching they face. MLB pitchers often throw harder with better secondary stuff compared to their minor-league counterparts. As such, the transition offensively for young players can be difficult.
“It’s the biggest jump in professional sports, the level of play in the minor leagues to the level of play in the big leagues because of the pitching you face,” Showalter said. “So, they’re going to struggle for the most part offensively for a while before they figure it out.”
However, one of the biggest ways to counteract those offensive challenges is with strong defense. While there’s more talent at the major-league level, strong defense translates immediately from the minors to the big leagues.
But one of Rutschman’s best assets is his above-average pop times and receiving skills, which gives him a chance to be a strong defender behind the dish, according to Baseball America.
“If the guy is a plus defender like [Schoop] and [Machado] were then that was easy,” Showalter said. “That’s the criteria to get there for me.”
During his nine-year tenure with the Orioles, Showalter worked alongside some of the game’s best defensively. Showalter led the team to the postseason in 2012, 2014 and 2016, finishing with a winning record in four of his nine seasons.
Two of those players, outfielder Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy, are now retired, with Hardy recently being inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame and Markakis announcing his retirement last month.
Markakis finished with an impressive 2,388 hits and a .288/.357/.423 career batting line in his 15-year career. During his nine-year tenure in Baltimore, he served as one of the team’s leaders and was a two-time Gold Glove winner.
After the Braves signed Markakis, Showalter explained to former Braves president of baseball operations John Hart what he had in the outfielder. Markakis played six seasons with the Braves, highlighted by his first and only career All-Star Game appearance in 2018.
“I said, ‘First of all, John, what are you looking for?'” Showalter said. “He said, ‘I’m looking for a veteran presence that shows these young guys how to play [and] is a rock when things get a little sideways.’ I said, ‘Well, you got the perfect guy in Markakis.'”
Just like Markakis, Hardy also brought leadership and consistency as a defender, winning three Gold Gloves in Baltimore. From year to year, Showalter and the Orioles staff would alter the team’s defensive tendencies, often taking advice from Hardy about how to better utilize each player’s strengths.
The moments when those recommendations brought success are some of Showalter’s favorites with Hardy.
“What I miss with J.J. is a look, or he would just kind of glance at you when something that we’ve worked on or talked about came to fruition,” Showalter said. “You’d catch his eye, and there’s just a little short nod that you got it, he got it. There were so many emotions and things done with J.J. that were unspoken.”
For more from Showalter, listen to the full interview here:
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