With apologies to John Means, Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and so many others, there’s a reason why Adley Rutschman’s debut is viewed as such a seminal moment in the Orioles’ competitive process.
Mostly, it’s that the second he arrived, Baltimore skipped simply being competitive and started winning. Sunday’s loss — a rare day out of the lineup for Rutschman — represented the Orioles’ 162nd game since Rutschman’s debut last May 21. They won 93 of those games, and there’s a full season’s worth of evidence that shows he’s impacted this team in every way imaginable.
His arrival did open the proverbial prospect faucet and meant others could be called up too, including Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers, Terrin Vavra, DL Hall, and Grayson Rodriguez, among others. And mixing the aforementioned holdover talent with this new blood has made the Orioles into a winning club, one that’s capturing local fans’ attention in a way this team hasn’t in nearly a decade and starting to earn respect around the game as well.
Rutschman’s role in that is somehow understated and oversized. It’s hard to describe how good he’s been over the course of his first season’s worth of games. But here are five ways that illustrate it as well as anything.
Rutschman is only in an Orioles uniform because the 2018 Orioles were one of the worst teams in modern baseball history, losing 115 games and securing the first pick in the 2019 draft. They lost two-thirds of their games in Brandon Hyde’s first three seasons, but Rutschman’s arrival flipped the winning switch basically overnight.
They won 93 of the 162 games since he debuted, a .574 winning percentage that’s tied for sixth-best in the league in that span. He started in 86 of those wins, and they’ve lost 58 times when he has started, meaning they’re 6-12 when he’s not in the starting lineup in the last season’s worth of games.
That’s essentially the same win-loss rate the Orioles had before he even came up.
Overall, the Orioles’ run differential of 48 suggests they might be a bit fortunate to have won that many games in the last 162. They’re more or less keeping pace with the teams they need to in that span, though. The Braves, Dodgers, and Astros all have over 100 wins since last May 20, but the Mets and Blue Jays have won 95 games while the Rays, Yankees, and Guardians won 94. There are the juggernauts, and then there are the rest of the good teams. The Orioles will be glad to be in category No. 2, considering where they came from.
Right to the top
Rutschman’s offensive capabilities were never in question, and over the course of a full season’s worth of games, he’s hit at a near-elite level. His wRC+ of 136 entering Sunday was 24th out of 200 major leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances since last May 21, with 100 representing league-average. His OPS of .824 is 34th.
But remember, Rutschman started slowly in the big leagues. He didn’t hit his first home run until his 21st game, on June 15 in Toronto. Entering that night, he had a .513 OPS. Once Rutschman got going, he’s been nearly as hot as anyone. Rutschman entered Sunday with an .872 OPS — 10th-best among players with 400 plate appearances in that span — and a 149 wRC+. The only names above him on both lists read as follows: Aaron Judge, Yordan Alvarez, Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Yandy Diaz, and Juan Soto.
Those first three weeks of adjusting happened, so we can have as much fun with arbitrary start and end points as we want. But once Rutschman got his feet under him, he basically started hitting like one of the game’s best almost immediately and has sustained it while playing one of baseball’s most demanding positions and rarely getting days off.
When the St. Louis Cardinals were having their issues with free agent signee Willson Contreras behind the plate and moved him to designated hitter, there were a lot of reasons why that seemed strange, but one was simply that you were taking an above-average hitter away from a position where there are fewer of them. If a lineup features an offensive threat at catcher, it already has a leg up on any team that doesn’t.
Rutschman exemplifies that for the Orioles. Since Rutschman debuted, only Philadelphia’s JT Realmuto has had more plate appearances while serving as catcher than Rutschman’s 503. Add in pinch-hitting and designated hitter assignments, and Rutschman tops all other catchers with 647 plate appearances. Entering Sunday, Will Smith of the Dodgers was next on the list with 576 plate appearances.
It’s worth noting that Rutschman basically found his way into the lineup every day back in 2022 when he was getting his first full taste of minor league baseball. They had built-in days off on Mondays, which helped, but Rutschman didn’t miss a game until he had to leave to go play in the MLB All-Star Futures Game that July. This was always the goal. He and the Orioles knew he’d have to play a significant role once he got to the majors, and once he got there, there weren’t really any regulators.
The desire to have him in the lineup is so strong that the Orioles have carried three catchers at times this year and weakened themselves elsewhere because they can’t keep Rutschman on the bench on days when he doesn’t catch. They know the advantage he gives them, and they’re willing to press it however possible.
An asset to the pitching staff
There are ways to quantify Rutschman’s defensive impact — his league-leading pitch blocking, his strong framing numbers —but there has to be something extra that the world doesn’t know about that explains his impact on pitchers.
There’s no denying the quality of the 13 pitchers on the Orioles staff over the last season’s worth of games is significantly higher than at any point in recent history. But the extent the Orioles have improved on the mound in Rutschman’s time with the club is staggering.
From Rutschman’s debut through Saturday’s games, the Orioles’ pitching staff had a 4.04 ERA, 16th-best in the majors, with their 1.29 WHIP 15th in the league. In the preceding 162 games, it was a league-worst 5.64 with a 1.49 WHIP, also worst in the league.
To pin all that on Rutschman is a bit unfair to everyone else (the pitchers who execute their pitches and the staff who helps gameplan and set the agenda, to name a few). Rutschman came to the Orioles with a reputation for someone who is so committed to winning that he elevates everyone around him. This staff needed elevating, and he’s done that.
No longer a divisional doormat
The Orioles couldn’t have had the turnaround they have in the last year without competing better against their divisional opponents, and only reigning American League MVP Aaron Judge has hit better within this division since Rutschman’s debut. Judge has a 179 wRC+ to lead all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances against AL East opponents since May 21, with Rutschman second in that group with a 161 wRC+. By OPS, Rutschman ranks third at .918 behind Judge (.970) and Ramón Urías, (.921).
This kind of success for the Orioles against divisional opponents is rather unprecedented. Simply going by full seasons, the best Orioles hitter with at least 200 plate appearances against divisional opponents was Chris Davis, who had a 169 wRC+ in the AL East in both 2013 and 2015.
His success in these spots explains the team’s uptick in success against divisional opponents since his debut. They started 5-11 in the division last year before going 29-31 with Rutschman on the roster, and are 6-6 so far against divisional opponents this year.
The balanced schedule means the Orioles have a lot more games against teams outside the division than in, but it’s still the games against divisional foes that will decide each team’s season in the AL East, considering they seem like they can beat outside competition pretty handily. Rutschman is helping the Orioles stay in that fight.