Draft | Story | 5/22/2019

Rutledge's rank on the rise

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jackson Rutledge (Perfect Game)

Jackson Rutledge Scouting Report2019 MLB Draft Preview Index

The road many of the eligible prospects travel to the MLB June Amateur Draft each year is sometimes littered with detours, as Jackson Rutledge learned over the last two years. And sometimes one of those detours will deliver those top prospects to their desired destination even quicker than anticipated.

Rutledge, an imposing 6-foot-8, 260-pound right-hander out of St. Louis, Mo., went undrafted out of Rockwood Summit High School in 2017, and headed to Fayetteville, Ark., where he was looking forward to embarking on a three-year career as an Arkansas Razorback; getting ready for the 2020 draft was the goal.

But things weren’t quite right for Rutledge in Fayetteville – he battled a torn hip labrum in his first and only season in 2018 – so he changed course. He left the ranks of NCAA D-I baseball and got on board with NJCAA D-I powerhouse San Jacinto College-North in Houston, where his breakout 2019 season sent him rocketing up draft prospect rankings across the country.

“It was everything I could have asked for,” Rutledge told PG when asked what his sophomore season at San Jac was like. “I made a lot of improvements which was a big thing, with command, with maintaining velocity deep into games which eventually led to my success.

‘And on top of that, it was a really fun season,” he added. “I was having fun playing baseball for the first time in a little while. It was really exciting for me and I couldn’t ask for any more than that.”

Rutledge made 13 starts for the Gators this spring and finished 9-2 with a nation’s best 0.87 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings pitched. His fastball reaches the upper-90s and he’s been able to maintain that velocity deep into games; he threw four complete games this season.

Just last week Rutledge was named one of 25 semifinalist for the coveted Golden Spikes Award which USA Baseball hands out annually to the top amateur player in the country; he is the only juco prospect among the semifinalists.

Perfect Game ranks Rutledge the No. 16 overall (college, juco, high school) prospect in this year’s draft, which would project to a middle of the first-round pick. A PG scouting report, filed in early March, had this to say about the big right-hander:

“Rutledge immediately stands out for his size, first and foremost. … (and he) is a physical monster in every sense of the phrase. The mechanical profile, especially in terms of the delivery, is pretty simple … and there are no red flags delivery-wise that would speak to problems down the road. … As far as stuff goes, Rutledge is right there with anyone in amateur baseball.”

In his 19 seasons as head coach at San Jac, Tom Arrington has seen his share of top prospects move through the program and on into professional baseball, and he’s got another one in Rutledge. The veteran coach is impressed by the way his right-hander manages four pitches – fastball, slider, changeup and curveball – and even with the power stuff that he has, he’s able to hit his locations.

“We’ve had many big-leaguers come through San Jac over the years, and most of the time it’s not the stuff it’s what they give to their teammates, and their character and their selflessness,” Arrington said. “He makes the players around him better.”

Arrington told PG that over the past several seasons he’s seeing more and more players opt out of their commitments to Division-I schools and start looking at other options. Many of them choose to go the junior college route simply because they don’t have to sit out a year, and Rutledge was one of them.

The coaches at San Jac knew about Rutledge’s abilities and what he might be capable of achieving and they were excited to get him, along with several others who were transferring in. Rutledge arrived in the fall when he was just starting to return to 100 percent from his hip issues, and the staff took a steady-as-she-goes approach to getting him back in a groove; the approach worked.

“I remember that day watching his first bullpen – what he was bringing forth just brought goosebumps to my arms – and I thought this kid is going to be something really special,” Arrington said. “He’s an imposing young man … and you look at him and you think this guy has all the makings to be a big-leaguer at some point.”

As Rutledge’s hip rehab progressed and he was able to gain more flexibility, the San Jac coaches started to work on fine-tuning his pitches and the development of those pitches. One of the top benefits Rutledge received from his year at San Jac was being able to work with pitching coach Woody Williams, a right-hander who pitched in the big leagues for 15 years (1993-2007).

The two clicked. Arrington noticed early on that Williams and Rutledge developed a great trust between one another. They were going to do things the right way and they were going to do things together, and a solid working relationship blossomed.

“Woody was able to mentor him in a way that he might not have gotten at other places,” Arrington said. “Being able to understand what it takes at the big league level, like using a four-seam fastball up in the zone; that was a big thing early on with us, working with Jackson to get that. … It was really just manipulating his identification of hitters, the usage of the tools that he already had and (developing) a comfort zone.

“Young ballplayers, they want to feel that trust and they want to feel that comfort that a coach is going to deliver to them and be on their side the whole way through, even through the tough times.”

Rutledge trained at P3 (Premier Pitching Performance) in St. Louis throughout his high school career while also taking part in eight PG events from 2014-16. He was at the 2015 Junior National Showcase, the 2016 National Indoor Showcase and the 2016 National Showcase, earning top prospect recognition at all three; he was all-tournament at the 2016 PG WWBA 17u National Championship while playing with the St. Louis Prospects.

Thirteen prospects that joined Rutledge at that PG National were selected in the first round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft, including No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis.

“It was a really good opportunity to kind of see where I’m at in relation to everyone else,” Rutledge said. “Staying in St. Louis, you really only have a select group that you’re competing against, so going to the Junior National, going to the National, gave me some perspective on all the guys that are out there working hard, and that gave me the motivation to work harder than them and be better than them eventually.”

Rutledge’s fastball topped-out at 91 mph at the PG National and he was still sitting in the low 90s during his injury shortened season at Arkansas. The big bump in velo came this spring, and Rutledge finds it pretty easy to identify the source.

“I think it just comes along with getting stronger, getting more mobile and moving better,” he said. “The biggest thing was just getting my hip fixed. I was looking at video from high school, video from my year at Arkansas and compared it to a bullpen I threw a few years ago, and it’s not even close (seeing) how well I’m moving now compared to what I was. Just moving the right way and getting stronger, it all eventually led to increased velo.”

In an unexpected twist to this tale, the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) placed the San Jac baseball program on probation late last year because of scholarship violations linked to letters of intent.

In a statement regarding the violations, San Jac officials said they interpreted the rules regarding student-athlete letters of intent differently the NJCAA but stated “the College respects the NJCAA’s decision and will comply with the one-semester probation.” That meant no postseason berth for the Gators.

Arrington called the probation “difficult” and “heart-breaking” and perhaps the most difficult task arrived in December when the coaches had to notify the players.

“We had to call each player to let them know what was going on, what the sanctions were … and they were free to leave at that point; we gave them that option,” Arrington said. “We let them know that we would welcome them back and that we’d still compete and do as much as we normally do on the field.”

While most of the early calls went out to the returning players, another one  went out to Jackson Rutledge. He let Arrington know that he came to San Jac to develop and become a better pitcher, that he was comfortable in Houston and he wasn’t going anywhere. No other player left, either.

“I think that’s just a testament of our relationship with those players and understanding how we’re going to help them develop in the game of baseball at San Jac,” Arrington said.

The Gators finished the season with a 40-13 mark behind an offense that produced a .291 team batting average and nearly seven runs per game. Sophomore right-hander Dane Acker (10-0, 2.36 ERA) and freshman lefty Mitchell Parker (6-0, 1.54 ERA) were the team’s other fulltime starters and provided terrific complements to Rutledge’s efforts.

This was a team that played its entire regular-season intent on proving to everyone it was one of the best in the country, even if that couldn’t be put on display during the postseason. It was a team with players who never stopped grinding and took to the field wanting to prove themselves on a daily basis.

“We’re pretty player-focused; we’re working on individual player development for the most part,” Rutledge said. “If you have a bunch of good players that’s going to eventually lead to a lot of wins, which has happened for TA (Arrington). Practices are based on what each guy needs to do to get better and that leads to the whole team getting better.”

In the event that the MLB Draft doesn’t produce the desired results, Rutledge will continue his baseball and academic careers at the University of Kentucky next year, and as a junior he would be eligible for the 2020 draft. The Wildcats look like another good fit for the big right-hander if the draft doesn’t work out.

“The big thing with them is the trust that I have in the coaches,” Rutledge said. “They recruited me out of high school so I kind of already had a relationship with them. I have a good buddy (Coltyn Kessler) that was my catcher in high school who is playing with them now, and I’ve heard a lot of good things from him.”

But make no mistake, Rutledge plans to be playing professionally as early as this summer. He wasn’t ready to make that jump out of high school, but he is a different pitcher than he was two years ago. To begin with, he’s a much more confident pitcher as a 20-year-old than he was as an 18-year-old, especially in the way he prepares for each of his starts. That, in turn, leads to a higher degree of consistency during those starts.

Rutledge has come to embrace performing in front of a throng of scouts and evaluators, saying that nervousness is very seldom a part of the equation. He tries to avoid looking up to see what’s going on around him, opting instead to keep his head down and focus on the job at hand. He did admit to feeling some nerves during one of his starts this spring when he spotted Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan among the onlookers. Ryan, he explained, “is kind of my hero.”

Jackson Rutledge’s road to the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft did take a couple of detours, but everything is right on track now. The draft is now just three weeks off and the picture is starting to become more focused.

“Once I decided to transfer to San Jac that was kind of my goal, to get myself prepared for pro ball; I think I’ve absolutely done that,” Rutledge said. “Mentally and physically I’m ready to play pro ball, and if the situation is right I’d love to take that opportunity. If it’s not, I’ll be back next year after a year at Kentucky, so that’s kind of where I’m at.

“It definitely has been enjoyable,” he concluded. “There are still a few things I would have liked to (clean up) … but for the most part this past year has been incredible; just everything that I could ask for.”

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