MILWAUKEE — Gunnar Henderson has seen it so many times, but whenever Adley Rutschman pokes a ball the other way with a half swing on a two-strike count, his Orioles teammate is always impressed.
It’s a unique ability Rutschman has, making him one of the most difficult batters to face in baseball in that high-pressure situation.
In San Francisco, for instance, Giants right-hander Alex Cobb worked Rutschman into a two-strike count Saturday. Rutschman saw the infield shift that moved the two left-side defenders up the middle and opened the third-base line. When Cobb threw a sinker on the outside corner, Rutschman poked a chopper into no-man’s land for an infield single.
“He has a really good idea of what he wants to do with the ball,” Henderson said. “When he gets to two strikes, he’ll just reach out there. He’s done it a bunch of times. He’ll do a half swing and hit it right over the infield’s head or hit it right through the six hole.”
Rutschman has been a major leaguer for just over a year, and he’s made an impact already as a two-way catcher. One of the most impressive aspects of that is how Rutschman can control the strike zone — defensively when framing pitches and offensively when laying off borderline pitches.
In that time with the Orioles, his offensive upside has developed to include his two-strike success. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Rutschman held the fourth-best average in the majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances. The .265 average trailed only the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman, Marlins’ Luis Arraez and Reds’ Spencer Steer — some of the best hitters in the sport — with Rutschman right in the mix.
“There’s just no press to his game,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s just super relaxed and he understands the strike zone so well and he has so much confidence in his hands — that’s why you see so many two-strike handsy swings, handsy hits to left field. I just love his approach. He can beat you pull-side homer, and he can beat you the other way with a single also. And that’s a really unique skill set right now.”
Rutschman has developed that ability over the years, first adjusting to the smaller barrel of a wooden bat compared to the metal one he used in high school and college, then adjusting to the improved pitching.
Last year, Rutschman hit .167 with a .562 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with two strikes. This year, his OPS is nearly 200 percentage points higher in those counts, showing the power potential when there’s a mistake. On Sunday, with right-hander Jakob Junis on the mound, a slider left over the zone turned into the sixth double of Rutschman’s season with two strikes.
But Rutschman’s .369 on-base percentage — the second best in baseball with two strikes — is that high because he doesn’t feel the need to drive the ball every time. He’ll accept a walk or a single to give his teammates an opportunity with him on base.
“Last year, that was something toward the end of the year I was a lot more comfortable doing, I guess, is taking pitches out on the outer part of the plate and hit a line drive to left field, especially with two strikes,” Rutschman said. “Not so much before two strikes, but definitely trying to find hits where you can.”
Rutschman is more selective before he reaches two strikes. He comes into an at-bat knowing a pitcher’s tendencies, and he’s looking for a specific pitch in a particular location. With two strikes, his zone expands — but not far enough to make him chase. His chase rate, a measure of whether a batter swings at pitches outside the zone, is better than 92% of major leaguers.
“That’s kind of something when you’re hitting BP, you’re hitting in the cages, you kind of get a sense for the zone and you get a feel for what I can do to certain pitches,” Rutschman said. “The farther it is away and low, the harder it is to hit balls to the pull side, but if they elevate it a bit more you can still pull it. Like, guys still do it. Some guys can do it better than others. But, just for the way my swing is working right now, better to go opposite field.”
According to Statcast, the majority of Rutschman’s singles this season as a left-handed batter have come on low-and-away pitches. All of his home runs as a lefty have been on pitches inside or over the middle, reinforcing where his focus shifts during a plate appearance. The longer it goes, the more likely he’ll drop his bat head on a two-strike pitch and dink it the other way.
The approach is working for Rutschman. With each two-strike hit, he’s solidifying his place as one of the toughest at-bats for a pitcher to experience.
“It’s definitely unique,” Hyde said, “and it’s incredibly advanced.”