So Holman could only laugh. He told Rutledge that, while pitching, with all that’s happening in a game, he can’t think about scapula retraction or the revolutions of a baseball. But Holman also knows Rutledge is a product of his era, a right-hander set on blending skill with data to reach big goals. Rutledge is now learning when tinkering has to give way to pitching. The focus in 2020, with Holman at his side, was on command and location rather than the way pitches traveled to the plate.
It’s all part of a slow and deliberate process. That doesn’t change when a prospect is 6-foot-8 with a high-90s fastball. The Nationals want to be even more detailed with Rutledge, whom they have kept off the trading block since drafting him in June 2019. The plan is to have him star in Washington — and stick.
“The objective is to be in that place where you don’t have to think, where you can just actually see it and do it,” Holman said in a December interview. “You’re trusting your athleticism, it’s a thoughtless approach, and you just compete and take away the cognitive elements in the heat of the moment. That’s what we want with our guys. Sometimes you have to make a conscious adjustment, but you shouldn’t have to think about every pitch every time you throw it. Jackson is getting there.”
Rutledge fits a few of the Nationals’ core philosophies. When they drafted him 17th overall out of San Jacinto College, they had picked a pitcher with their past four first-round picks. When they drafted Cade Cavalli 22nd overall last spring, the streak ran to five. The group features Rutledge, Cavalli, Mason Denaburg (2018), Seth Romero (2017) and Dane Dunning (2016). Then there is Erick Fedde, selected in the first round in 2014, and Lucas Giolito in 2012.
Most of these pitchers, like Rutledge, were college arms with strong fastballs. And most of them, like Rutledge, are very tall. But there’s one critical difference with Rutledge and his internal trajectory: The Nationals don’t want to trade him.
Giolito and Dunning were traded to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton in 2016. Reynaldo López, another young arm, was included in that deal. Jesús Luzardo, another top pitching prospect, headlined a trade package for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017. And just last week, Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean — a pair of consensus top-10 prospects for Washington — were sent to Pittsburgh for first baseman Josh Bell.
Once the Bell deal was complete, General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters that “we’ve never been afraid to give up good players to get good players.” But, for now, that logic stops at Rutledge and Cavalli. The Nationals view them as potential rotation pillars.
“He has the stuff now to pitch in the big leagues,” Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager in charge of player development, said of Rutledge in December. “But there are so many more layers to the process, and really what we want to do is continue to build a foundation as much as we can. They’re going to go at their own pace. Some pitchers are certainly going to develop quicker than others.”
That foundation, Scialabba explained, is mastering pitch sequencing; it’s developing fastball command that plays in the majors; it’s learning to throw both in and out of the strike zone, fielding the position and taking care of your arm and body between starts. It’s a lot.
There have never been questions about whether Rutledge can handle this. The question is how long it will take before he’s on the mound at Nationals Park. He has just 10 professional starts among the Gulf Coast League, the New York-Penn League and the low-Class A Hagerstown Suns. They all came in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season and left Rutledge in Fredericksburg, facing the same hitters on loop, wasting time with video games and fishing when he wasn’t at the park.
But Rutledge and Holman saw benefits of the alternate site. Of course, the club would have rather had five months of real games for its prospects or even a shortened schedule. Fredericksburg, though, offered a prolonged spring training for select players. Rutledge faced more experienced hitters who didn’t chase pitches he was used to getting strikes on. That forced him to emphasize location, like Holman wanted, and think a bit less about creating velocity or gyroscopic spin. The environment was ripe for both tinkering and letting loose.
“I’ve really been not necessarily focused on the shape of my pitches and how I’m using them but just filling up the zone and going right at hitters,” Rutledge said in September. “Getting hitters out that way rather than trying to hit corners and be too fancy with things.”
In some starts, Rutledge threw a high volume of change-ups to fine-tune that pitch. In others, he leaned on his fastball to search for the command needed at the next level. As pitchers were promoted to Washington, and the summer days bled together, Rutledge was antsy to take that jump and prove himself, too.
He should get that chance soon enough.