Olney: How O's leverage Adley Rutschman's bat — without overworking him

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When Adley Rutschman was promoted to the big leagues little more than two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles’ catcher became known for how he greets his pitcher coming off the mound. With his mask tucked under an armpit, Rutschman presents energy, or empathy, or encouragement, or maybe some combination of those — more often than not, a hug. Whatever is needed in the moment.

Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde values these people skills — not to mention Rutschman’s other abilities as a catcher. But Hyde has demonstrated that with Rutschman, a priority in his planning to make sure that his offensive skills are part of his batting order as often as possible.

“I’m trying to keep him as fresh as possible defensively,” Hyde said, as part of a conversation that began in March about how he chooses to deploy Rutschman. “But he’s also Adley Rutschman offensively, and we feel it when his bat’s not in the lineup.”

Rutschman was batting .300 through Thursday’s game, with 95 hits, 15 homers and an Adjusted OPS+ of 140. Few catchers anchor a lineup in the way that Rutschman does for the Orioles. Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was usually the most important hitter for the New York Mets in his eight years with that team, and never played more than 141 games, in years before National League teams did not have daily access to the designated hitter. Buster Posey often hit third or fourth for the Giants, and in 2015, he played in a career-high 150 games, sometimes at first base. Salvador Perez, a recent outlier, played 161 games in 2021, 122 of those at catcher.

Rutschman played in 154 games last season, and in the first half of 2024, he has been in the lineup almost every game — 77 of the team’s 81 games. He hits in the No. 2 spot, or, very occasionally, as the leadoff hitter, with Hyde willing to use him at a catcher a little less to ensure that he’s available to DH.

“It’s been a process over the last two years figuring out what’s best,” Rutschman said. “He obviously puts a lot of thought into it, which I appreciate.”

In fact, the past two years have included a steady dialogue between Rutschman and Hyde and the Baltimore staff — transparent conversations about how Rutschman is feeling, and whether he might benefit from more time at DH. These discussions are parallel to those that occurred in recent seasons to those between Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels, as the player and team tried to find the best path that would give him the most success as a two-way player.

Hyde said that the majority of the time, it’s the manager who initiates the conversation about a game at DH or even a day off.

“Because he still doesn’t like sitting,” Hyde said. “But he also understands it. He understands he does need time or breaks on occasion. We talk about it …”

Hyde chuckled. “But it’s usually I’m the one who’s going to him.”

“It’s my job to play,” Rutschman said. “At the end of the day, I’m always available to play — which is always the way you’ve always been taught to play. It’s a tough thing to balance, in my mind, in players’ mind.”

Last year, Rutschman caught 110 games, and this season, he’s on pace to be behind the plate a little less. (In the team’s first 81 games, he started at catcher in 49 and as DH in 27). Hyde said there’s not a specific target, but said that he felt Rutschman’s 2023 workload “worked out really, really well. He felt good at the end of the year. So that’s sort of my goal — have him in the lineup as much as possible, with giving him the right off days, letting his body recover.”

In making his plans, Hyde will look ahead about 10 days, he estimates, in trying to figure out when he’ll use Rutschman at catcher and when he could be a DH, with a number of variables in play — the travel schedule, the opposing team’s starting pitcher, the Orioles’ starter. Hyde will also factor in the feedback that he’s getting from Rutschman about how he’s feeling. As Rutschman has gotten more time in the big leagues, Hyde said before the season, he offers opinions more freely about what days might be best for him to catch and when it could be more beneficial for him to DH.

But those plans, Hyde said, are all made in pencil, because they can change based on the ever-changing circumstances — a need for Rutschman to pinch hit and finish the game at catcher, extra innings, weather delays or postponement, a shift in the opponent’s rotation. Working behind the plate in Thursday’s game, Rutschman was clipped on his throwing hand by a ball hit back at him. Though X-rays for a possible fracture showed no break, he was out of the lineup on Friday [for just the fifth time all year].

As Hyde weighs his options, he’ll also consider the best possible matchups for James McCann, the Orioles’ other catcher, who historically has hit better against left-handed pitchers than right-handers.

Over the past two seasons, Rutschman’s power production has been better when he has served as DH. He has 27 homers in 247 games in his career at catcher. In his 96 starts at DH, he has 20 homers, with a slugging percentage almost 170 points higher than when he catches. If Rutschman has had a heavy catching load, Hyde says, he can sometimes see the impact in Rutschman’s offense.

“If he’s [caught] four out of five days, I can just tell,” Hyde said. “Nobody’s going to be fresh catching over the summer in the northeast. I try to eyeball it and communicate with him, and we manage the best we can.”

When Rutschman was in college, he acknowledged, he wasn’t in the habit of telling athletic trainers about days he didn’t feel great, or was dealing with some minor nagging issue. “I feel like I’ve gotten better at that,” Rutschman said. “But you still want to play.”

Talking over the phone Thursday, Hyde noted the intensity of the Orioles’ schedule in June — Baltimore will wind up playing on 29 of the 30 days this month — to explain why he has used Rutschman more often as the DH. That slog slows in July: The Orioles have a day off Monday [although they are flying to Seattle overnight after their “Sunday Night Baseball” game against the Texas, cutting into their down time] and then have another day off July 8, before the All-Star break. Given those respites, Hyde figures he’ll be more aggressive in starting Rutschman at catcher in the month ahead.

But again, he adds, that plan could change. Because of a rainout, or a game lingering into a 12th or 13th inning, or a foul tip, or just an instinct from Hyde or one of his coaches.

Late in Posey’s career, he learned to streamline his game preparation in order to save some of the wear and tear on his body. Near the end of Posey’s time in the big leagues, former Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said that Posey would need only 10 swings in batting practice to be ready. Hyde believes Rutschman is learning how to make similar adjustments.

“He’s a worker,” Hyde said. “Now that he’s past his first full major league year, he understands the calendar and what it takes. I think he’s going to be able to manage his swings and his extra stuff a lot better.”

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