Adley Rutschman wasn’t exclusively a catcher when he played baseball early in life, but perhaps he was destined to eventually settle on the position as he grew older.

After all, his father, Randy, had been coaching catchers for years by the time Adley began playing baseball. But it was the promise of a wooden bat that might have started Adley down the path to becoming the face of the Baltimore Orioles.

As part of his coaching travels, Randy would often speak at clinics, where he was always asked if he had any videos to augment his instruction. He eventually made his own DVDs by filming drills with college catchers, but he didn’t have anything specifically geared toward young catchers.

Randy got Adley, who was 8 years old at the time, to agree to help him make a DVD of catching drills for young kids.

“I bribed him and I said, ‘Adley, can you help me do this catching video for young kids? I will get you a wooden baseball bat,'” Randy said. “He told me, ‘Yeah, deal.'”

In the process, Randy would get a chance to teach his son to do the drills properly.

“Adley, we’ve got to get this thing right because if people are going to get this DVD, we’ve got to do a good job,” Randy remembers telling Adley. “… He could’ve done just fine without it, but I wanted him to be able to do some things right and not have to correct him down the road.”

After that, it was time to get Adley a bat. Randy traveled from his family’s Oregon home to Washington State-based Viper Bats.

“I went to Viper Bats up north and got them to put ‘Adley Rutschman’ on the bat and gave it to him,” Randy said, “and about the first time he used it he broke it.”

More than 15 years later, Adley Rutschman has plenty of wooden bats to pick from if he breaks one. The 24-year-old is considered the centerpiece of a massive Orioles rebuild. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound switch-hitting catcher is expected to spend plenty of time in the big leagues in 2022 after splitting the 2021 campaign — his first full professional season — between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. He hit .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs between the two stops last season.

Since starring in that video for his father, Rutschman has done just about everything a catcher can do to this point, including winning the College World Series with Oregon State in 2018 and being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft.

Throughout his career, Rutschman has displayed an unwavering passion for the process of catching, with a personality fit for elevating those around him. Whenever the Orioles next field a contender, there’s a good chance Rutschman’s leadership will be a defining feature of that club.

“There are so many different aspects that go into it. I do like that cerebral part of the game,” Rutschman said of catching. “And also, you’re doing something with someone else every pitch. You and the pitcher have a connection. You have things that you’re trying to accomplish together, in a sense. I think that’s a very unique thing.”

Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez
Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

Smooth As Butter

When fans watch Rutschman, they see the most obvious sign of the catcher’s relationship with his pitchers. Rutschman greets his pitcher on the field after an inning, which is unusual considering every other catcher almost always walks back to the dugout and reconvenes with his pitcher there.

“If I get excited after an inning or something, you just kind of share that excitement together. I think I’ve always done it,” Rutschman said. “… As long as our pitchers are OK with having me do it, then I’m going to continue to do it.”

One pitcher Rutschman met a lot after successful innings in 2021 was right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The 6-foot-5 right-hander posted a 2.36 ERA in 103 innings between High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie last year while striking out 161 hitters and walking just 27.

Rodriguez and Rutschman worked together extensively at Bowie before Rutschman was called up to Triple-A Norfolk. After a particularly smooth inning, what does Rutschman like to tell Rodriguez as they’re walking off the field?

“He likes the term ‘butter’ a lot. That’s something that’s kind of unique to him,” Rodriguez said. “If there’s anything [good] that happens, he loves to say butter, so that’s probably his thing. If you punch out the side, that might be all he says to you as you’re walking off.”

What about if Rodriguez has great stuff but balls in play are finding green grass?

“Then maybe it’s a little punch in the gut,” Rutschman said. “Say, ‘Hey, you’re Grayson Rodriguez, man. You’re doing your best. You’ve got your best stuff, and we’re just going to keep going and we’re going to get through this.'”

What about if his stuff is down a tick?

“Then it’s going to be a little bit more of a, ‘Hey, we’re going to get through this,’ with a little softer tone behind it,” Rutschman said.

Rutschman was slated to play at Bowie in 2020, but COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the minor league season and his Double-A debut was delayed until 2021. He played in Bowie until August, when he was promoted to Norfolk.

Buck Britton, now the manager at Norfolk, was the skipper at Bowie last year. He called Rutschman “one of the hardest workers we have in the entire organization” and said he sets an example other players feed off of.

Britton said that when he removed a pitcher during a game in which the Baysox were struggling, Rutschman refocused the rest of team.

“It was Adley who was coming to the mound in a calm tone, ‘Hey, we need to pick it up today,'” Britton said. “And you could just look around and it was just a nod of the head, like, ‘Yeah, he’s right. Let’s go.’ Just a calming, ‘Hey, let’s pick this up,’ and that’s all he had to say. The respect that those players had for him, he was standing there on the mound and there was nobody rolling their eyes. It was just like, ‘Yeah, he’s right. We’ve got to pick this up.'”

Randy and Adley Rutschman
Randy and Adley Rutschman (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Rutschman Family)

Like Father, Like Son

Players in the Orioles organization follow Rutschman’s example, but Rutschman has long been following in the footsteps of his father Randy, who caught at Division III Linfield from 1978-1981. More recently, Randy was part of the summer ball Aloha Knights, first as a player-coach (1999-2002) and later as a coach (2003-2004). He then coached at Division III George Fox (2004-2015). He focused on catching in his instruction.

Adley’s mother, Carol, turned the Knights’ road trips, most of which came in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, into vacations for Adley and his sister, Josie. As such, they were able to spend time with their father as he traveled with the Knights — and have a little fun.

In fact, Adley and Josie learned how to ride a bike at one of the Knights’ games. Carol taught them how to ride a bike along the concourse as they watched the game. Adley was 3 years old at the time. How long did it take him to pick it up?

“Quick,” Carol said. “And then it was, ‘Mom, take these training wheels off of here.'”

And when he wasn’t on a bike, Adley was ready to fill in for the Knights, or so he thought.

“When Adley would get dressed to go to the ballpark with us for the day, he was conscious about what he wore,” Carol said, “because he had to wear socks that matched what the team was wearing just in case they needed him that day.”

Back home, Adley would play wiffle ball games in the front yard and set up cones to mark where balls had to be hit for home runs. He was shagging fly balls at George Fox’s practices by the time he was 8 years old.

Randy was on the coaching staff for his son’s teams up until eighth grade. Randy felt he was pigeonholed as a catcher in his own career as a ballplayer, so he encouraged his son to play different positions. Adley pitched and played shortstop, catcher and center field prior to high school. He also played football and basketball growing up.

Adley said his father never wanted to give preferential treatment to his son when he was coaching, nor did he ever want to be the over-the-top dad who cared more about baseball than his son did.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I love baseball so much is he never pushed me as far as baseball went,” Adley said. “He always just pushed me to be passionate about something and pursue what I’m passionate about. That happened to be baseball.”

Adley attended Sherwood High School in Oregon, serving as the starting backstop as a junior and senior. Jon Strohmaier, the baseball coach at Sherwood from 1992-2016, caught at Portland State during his playing days. Strohmaier said he worked a lot with Adley on blocking and throwing to bases and tried to reinforce what Randy had already taught him.

“In my 24 years as a head coach, Randy’s the only parent I tried to solicit advice from and he would never give it to me,” Strohmaier said. “But he did give me some of the drills and things that he was doing with his catchers when he was coaching. I kind of would take those and put those into our everyday drills. It was just more of a refining thing for me with Adley.”

Pat Bailey, the head coach at George Fox from 1995-2007 who led the program to a Division III national championship in 2004, calls Randy “the best catching coach [he’s] ever been around.”

“His dad’s a great teacher, number one. I mean, he’s just a really, really, really good teacher,” Bailey said. “He relates to young people really well, and he really knows what he’s doing. He really understands the catching component of the game of baseball. He’s just a great communicator, and he’s a great human being. He just loves people.”

Adley continued playing football in high school, too. He played linebacker, fullback and kicker — and even quarterback for a bit as a junior. A 63-yard field goal he kicked with his left foot in November 2015 still lives on YouTube today.

Adley says playing multiple sports helped him become a better athlete and led him to baseball full time in an organic way.

“If someone were to ask me, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite sport?’ it would be whatever I was playing,” Adley said. “I think it helped me develop a true passion for baseball so that I was definitely not burned out when I got to college and I was really more so in the mindset of I was ready to settle down for that one sport.”

Preparation Breeds Success

These days, Adley Rutschman usually arrives at the ballpark ahead of a 7 p.m. home game at about 1 p.m. His daily routine when he’s catching includes getting loose in the weight room or batting cage, taking batting practice, going through a mobility routine, meeting with that night’s starting pitcher and more.

Eventually, Rutschman will settle in behind home plate for that night’s game, crouch down and call scores of pitches. When Rodriguez peers in at the 6-foot-2, 220-pound backstop, he sees an “intimidating presence” — in a good way.

“It’s like there’s some intent behind the call,” Rodriguez said. “He’s not second-guessing what to call or what not [to call]. He’s pretty confident back there. I think the baserunners, it kind of throws them off their game a little bit knowing who he is, what he’s back there doing. And with the hitters, it kind of sounds a little crazy, but just kind of his presence benefits a pitcher in a big way.”

Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt has worked with Rutschman during spring training and at the alternate site in 2020. He says Rutschman’s presence comes from the level of preparation he puts into each pitcher’s outing, knowing each pitcher’s strengths and an “inviting” setup behind the plate.

“The No. 1 thing is he does his homework,” Holt said. “He knows his pitcher, and he knows his pitcher’s strengths. He knows the opposing hitters and he knows their strengths and weaknesses. And then on top of that, he helps to prepare and engages in dialogue or conversations with pitchers so that it’s not a one-way conversation.”

Tim Cossins, the Orioles’ major league field coordinator and catching instructor, has worked with Rutschman in spring training and will continue to do so in the big leagues. Cossins was a minor league manager for the Marlins from 2003-2007 then the minor league catching coordinator through the 2012 season.

Cossins compared Rutschman’s intangibles to those of three-time All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, who was drafted and developed by the Marlins.

“We stress with our catchers, we joke about it, our mantra is, ‘1-for-4 and a win,'” Cossins said. “If you have a couple catchers that buy into that, that mindset is very, very productive because it takes the team and puts it ahead of everything else. That’s massively important.”

Last year between Bowie and Norfolk, Rutschman made 80 starts behind the plate, 28 starts at first base and 14 starts at designated hitter. Orioles general manager Mike Elias said the plan for Rutschman’s usage was designed to keep him fresh after there was no minor league season the previous year. Plus, learning first base gives Rutschman an option to stay in the lineup in the future when he doesn’t catch.

Rutschman, for his part, doesn’t know what his big league workload will look like long term. He just wants to stay healthy. His 2022 season debut was backed up due to a right triceps strain that cropped up in spring training.

“I hope I’m fortunate enough to be able to catch as many games as I can and be healthy for as long as I can,” Rutschman said.

Adley Rutschman at Oregon State
Adley Rutschman at Oregon State (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Oregon State Athletics)

Driving The Team

Rutschman had developed a passion for catching before college, but working with Nate Yeskie, who was the pitching coach at Oregon State from 2009-2019, pushed the young catcher’s enjoyment for the position to a new level.

By the middle of his freshman year, Rutschman had become comfortable with both the fundamentals of the position and working with the Beavers’ pitching staff, so he started going more in-depth with Yeskie about the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the team’s pitchers.

“To me, that was like the turning point of where my enjoyment for the position was just through the roof because it no longer became about just me getting the job done but also helping other guys around me,” Rutschman said.

Yeskie called pitches for Oregon State when Rutschman was a freshman, but Yeskie allowed his catcher some freedom to call pitches as a sophomore and junior. Because of the game plan they would formulate, Rutschman and Yeskie were on the same page anyway.

“At some point you’re going to have to take your hands off the steering wheel and let those guys drive,” Yeskie said.

Oregon State went 55-12-1 in 2018, a season that was capped off with the program’s third College World Series title. The Beavers were powered by Rutschman, who hit .407/.503/.630 with 34 extra-base hits and had more walks (52) than strikeouts (39).

Rutschman, of course, left an impact behind the plate, too. What Rutschman meant to that team was obvious on the final pitch in Omaha. Oregon State was up, 5-0, in the bottom of the ninth of a winner-take-all Game 3 against Arkansas. Right-hander Kevin Abel threw a 3-2 fastball with two outs and nobody on. Rutschman deftly dragged it into the strike zone. Strike three. Game over.

“A lot of people thought the last pitch of the national championship game in 2018 was a pitch that was down, but he had been fighting to win the low strike all game long, and at that point, it’s kind of a 50-50 ball,” Yeskie said.

In November 2018, Mike Elias was hired as GM of the Orioles, who had just gone 47-115 at the big league level and needed an organizational overhaul from top to bottom. One of Elias’ first key decisions was who to select with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft.

Elias and a pair of scouts went to Corvallis, Ore., in January 2019 to meet with Rutschman and watch him work out with the Beavers. Elias recalls meeting a confident, energetic kid whose passion for catching was obvious. That’s important, according to Elias, because of the sacrifices catchers tend to make in terms of their health and offensive production.

“[You have] to apply so much of your time to other players, to the pitchers in particular, that you’ve got to be that type of teammate … to sacrifice so much of your time and attention and focus to a part of the game that’s really about helping the team and helping other players on the team,” Elias said. “It takes a leader.”

Long Career Awaits

It’s no secret the Orioles have struggled to field quality pitching staffs for decades. In the Camden Yards era (1992-2021), the Orioles have posted a team ERA below 4.00 four times and above 5.00 nine times.

That’s a far cry from when the organization was the standard-bearer for pitching. From 1963-1984, Orioles pitchers won 20 or more games 24 times. They also took home six American League Cy Young Awards. The most recent award was won by right-hander Steve Stone in 1980, when he posted a 25-7 record and 3.23 ERA in 250.2 innings as a curveball-heavy pitcher.

Stone came to Baltimore in 1979 after posting a 67-72 mark and 4.11 ERA with three teams from 1971-1978. Rick Dempsey, who caught for the Orioles from 1976-1986 and in 1992, relayed a message to Stone early in his tenure with Baltimore.

“If I give you a curveball with a runner at third base, I want to see your best curveball because you cannot throw it by me in the dirt,” Stone recalled Dempsey telling him. “The only way you can get the ball by me is to throw it over my head. So if you don’t throw it over my head, we’re going to be in good shape.”

Stone said he enjoyed throwing to Dempsey because the catcher blocked breaking balls in the dirt, threw out potential base-stealers thanks to great footwork, a quick release and a strong arm, and had a glove that popped, giving the impression that his stuff might have been better than it actually was.

Dempsey said Stone was open to suggestions, including occasionally dropping down sidearm to throw a curveball. Dempsey said catchers must have a relationship with pitchers that breeds trust.

“Once they learn to be comfortable, it isn’t that they can’t throw to somebody else,” Dempsey said. “It’s just that they feel very confident that when there’s a question in their mind as to what pitch [to throw], he knows I’m going to give him the confidence to make that pitch. If that happens, then he has a good game, and we always had that with Steve.”

Decades later, Rutschman is hoping to elevate Orioles pitchers the same way Dempsey did for Stone. According to Rutschman, that means taking a genuine interest in the pitcher’s career, forming relationships with pitchers as people to learn what makes them tick and working hard behind the dish.

It’s a simple formula, but one Rutschman has been perfecting since making that DVD with his dad.

“Hopefully that combination works to make them the best pitcher they can be,” Rutschman said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be the best recipe for them, but I’m going to do the best job I can for them to try to make sure that they know that I’ve got their backs. We’ll see if that helps at all. Maybe it doesn’t, maybe it does. That’s all I can really do and that’s all I can give.”

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles, the Rutschman Family and Oregon State Athletics

Issue 274: April/May 2022

Luke Jackson

See all posts by Luke Jackson. Follow Luke Jackson on Twitter at @luke_jackson10