HAGERSTOWN — Aberdeen IronBirds first-year hitting coach Tom Eller observed batting practice a few hours before the team’s Aug. 19 game against the Vermont Lake Monsters and recognized it would only be a matter of time before Adley Rutschman found his stroke.
It was an approach that Eller knew included more than just Rutschman’s ability to hit for an elite average, which he had been doing of late as part of nine-game hitting streak that increased his batting average from .184 to a respectable .277. Instead, it was a rare combination of power and plate discipline that had helped earn the 21-year-old switching-hitting catcher the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur baseball player in the country and prompted the Baltimore Orioles to draft him with the first overall pick in June.
“It’s funny, because in BP [that day], we kind of switched it up. We had a 2-0 round, where he basically started with a 2-0 count, and he got four pitches. Every one of them he hit way out,” said Eller, a Cecil County native who the Orioles hired this past winter after he helped build Harford Community College into one of the top hitting programs in the country. “He put on a show in BP and I knew it was coming.”
Rutschman’s pregame hitting session featured the use of a high-speed video camera, a device that allowed Eller to track the batter’s movements while he swung in the cage. It’s one of several new-aged analytic tools that the IronBirds have utilized under their new hitting instructor.
“When we were doing our BP rounds, we had our edgertronic video, which is like super slow motion, and we got him on that. We got one swing, and the one swing that we got was like a 400-foot blast over the second shed out in right field,” Eller said. “I just showed it to him and said, ‘That’s perfect. That’s literally the perfect swing. Keep doing that.’”
That evening, Rutschman broke through with a historic performance, tying a team record by clubbing five hits in five trips to the plate, including his first home run and triple as a member of the short-season IronBirds.
The effort skyrocketed his batting average to .325 and earned the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect a promotion to the playoff-bound Delmarva Shorebirds — Baltimore’s Low-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
“Seeing him hit that first home run was great. It was a bomb, too,” Eller said. “It probably would have hit the top of the scoreboard had it been a little to the left.”
A few hours south on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Adam Hall knows what it will take for Rutschman to have success at the next level. The Shorebirds’ starting shortstop, who earned an All-Star nod last summer with the Aberdeen IronBirds, has played his entire sophomore season with Delmarva. He currently sits third on the team with a .303 batting average.
On a roster worn down by a full season of baseball and depleted by mid-summer promotions, the addition of a player of Rutschman’s caliber is a welcoming sight for the players on the playoff-bound Shorebirds.
“Getting to see what a No. 1 overall pick looks like on the field with you is always going to be a cool thing,” said Hall, whose presence has helped Delmarva earn a share of the best record in the league. “I can assume he feels like the new guy coming into a new situation. Right now, it’s just getting to know him.”
Five days after his 5-for-5 night earned him a ticket to the next level, Rutschman was penciled into the 2-hole in the batting order for Game One of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Hagerstown Suns. He was also behind the plate as the catcher for Delmarva ace Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ first-round pick a year ago.
The contest, which took place in worn-down Municipal Stadium, marked Rutschman’s first away game as a member of the Shorebirds.
“We were pretty pumped up. He’s been down in Aberdeen and he was tearing the ball up,” Rodriguez said of Rutschman’s promotion. “Us rolling into the payoffs, it was nice that he was coming up here to help us out.”
However, the hitting streak has not followed Rutschman to his new team. After going hitless in two Delmarva home games, the rookie catcher failed to reach base in both games of Saturday’s doubleheader.
Wearing white cleats and a No. 37 jersey (he wore No. 35 in Aberdeen), Rutschman did a good job working the count, but had several outfield flyouts, popped out once and struck out twice as Delmarva split the twinbill.
“It’s figuring out what the new level brings and what the different aspects of pitching at this level is. I’m just trying to get a feel for that right now,” Rutschman said. “I’m still working on getting settled in here. For right now, it’s just trying to enjoy the process”
Eller opened the season with Delmarva, helping the offense lead the SAL in batting average and on-base percentage during the first half before returning to Harford County in June to coach with Aberdeen. He understands the adjustments Rutschman will have to make to continue having success in the batter’s box.
“It’s not a big step. I think there’s a few more arms that are upper-tier velocity, the 94-95 [mph] arms, where in the New York-Penn, I felt like every day, our scouting report was 89-92 with a slider. When you look at the SAL, it’s more 91-93 with a slider and they throw a lot of breaking balls up there,” Eller said. “I think what he brings the most to Delmarva is it’ll give him a boost of confidence because they lost a lot of great players moving up to Frederick or Bowie. I think it just adds another really good catcher.
“I know Cody Roberts is a really good catcher, but to have Adley Rutschman there to help call pitches, he’s a really good teammate. He’s just a great kid to have on your team.”
Rutschman’s process has also included getting to know a new pitching staff.
After taking batting practice Saturday, he spent the remainder of pregame catching Rodriguez in the bullpen in center field trying to develop a rapport with the Orioles’ top pitching prospect ahead of their first start.
“It’s a learning process. Just from the catcher’s standpoint, catching new pitchers is always a challenge. It’s the fun part for me, getting to know them, because once you settle in, it’s just about rhythm at that point,” Rutschman said. “Usually, during the bullpen, [I try to figure out] what he’s feeling at the time, what pitches are working and what ones we’re going to try to stay away from.
“Obviously, we’re trying to work and get better out here, so sometimes we’re going to have to call pitches because we’re working on them, but for the most part, it’s trying to get a feel of what he likes to throw in what counts and how we’re going to attack batters.”
Although the outing wasn’t Rodriguez’s sharpest — he lasted 4 2-3 innings and allowed six hits and four runs (two of which crossed the plate after he left the mound), with five strikeouts, two walks and one wild pitch — there was little friction between the pitcher and his new catcher.
It appeared as if they had been working together all year and not just an afternoon.
“Usually the first time you hook up with a catcher you’ve got to shake a lot, but I didn’t shake him once. In the bullpen we were good, in the game, I agreed with everything he called. He looked great behind the plate,” Rodriguez said. “People want to see results. Today wasn’t all that great, it definitely didn’t want to go the way we wanted to. It was just one of those outings.”
If Rutschman’s experience in Aberdeen is any indication, once he grows comfortable, the results will soon follow. That’s great news for Delmarva, which is hoping for postseason success after posting the most wins in franchise history.
“Honestly, I was kind of amazed how much he knew about hitting. A lot of guys from college, they do whatever they’ve always done and you’ve got to kind of play with it. All his mechanics were pretty much perfect. The way he practices was already the way I’d get him to practice. He came in already an experienced veteran almost,” Eller said. “The first week or so, I just kind of let him do him and let him figure things out. I kind of wanted to see how he adjusted to things, how he worked through things. It was probably three weeks ago, he came into the office and asked to look at video. He was [asking] ‘What do you see? What do you think about this? What do you think about that?”
The footage, Eller noted, showed Rutschman had been swinging late, forcing him to rush through his mechanics and ultimately chase bad pitches. The conversation helped spark Rutschman’s 10-game hitting streak.
“I swear, it was like the next day he figured it out,” Eller said. “Really, what it was for him, was that he wanted to get comfortable to the pitching and not try to over swing. He wanted to go with pitches. Once he started feeling a little bit more comfortable, he really started to drive the ball a little bit more.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig