How heavy of a catching load should Adley Rutschman carry this season?

Here is an interesting question that the Orioles may not yet be prepared to answer for us, but clearly one they must have debated often internally: How heavy of a load catching should Adley Rutschman handle this year?

Last season Rutschman, who made his big league debut May 21, played in 113 games and was starting catcher in 84 of those. He made 23 starts as designated hitter and pinch-hit in a few other games. So, of the games he played in, he started at catcher in 74.3 percent of them. Over 162 games, a catcher starting that percentage would make 120 starts. And that would be a pretty heavy load, even for a young catcher.

But it’s a question, no doubt, that the O’s brass has pondered and may even have an exact game plan mapped out for this season, whether they would lay it out for us or not. Sure, they want him and his considerable defensive talents out there as often as he can handle.

But they have to take a lot into consideration here. Like at what number of games would he begin to wear down, and would his stats suffer? How about his long-term future at the position, and how hard do they want to push him as he begins his first full major league season? How much do they plan to use him as the DH?

Rutschman, who turned 25 in February, is clearly the team’s best catcher and the face of the franchise. He will certainlly become more and more of a clubhouse leader as he builds a bigger big league resume. They want him on the field and often, but not to the point that he is physically drained and the results are not what would be otherwise expected. And, obviously, they want him around playing at a high level for many seasons to come.

After his call to the majors on May 21, the Orioles went 67-55. And that includes all games, of course, and not just those when he was the catcher. That winning percentage of .549 would produce 89 wins over a full season. He produced 18 Defensive Runs Saved, which was second among catchers and tied for eighth in the majors. He was second to Julio Rodríguez of Seattle for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez is a seven-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who over his career has carried a heavy load behind the plate. In 2014 – the year the Royals beat the Orioles for the AL title – he started 143 games at catcher at age 24. That is a huge amount. The next year he started 137 and in 2021, at age 31, the number was 120 for Perez, still a sizable number.

Last year in the majors, Oakland catcher Sean Murphy played in 148 games, but the number of catcher starts was 116. Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover, tied his career high with 130 at catcher last season at age 31.

But it seems that, even for the younger Rutschman, playing in 120 to 130 behind the plate might be beyond what the O’s actually intend.

In 2022, Rutschman produced a .793 OPS when catching, an .838 OPS when serving as a DH and a 1.133 OPS in his six plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

And some of this could also depend on backup James McCann. Manager Brandon Hyde’s comments this spring seem to indicate he really likes McCann on defense and is quite comfortable with him back there and handling the pitching staff. If McCann's bat can return to his 2019-2020 form - his OPS+ was 114 over that span - the team may want him to play a decent amount for a No. 2 catcher. But his OPS+ was just 70 the last two years combined. Still, the O’s can't run down Rutschman with catching duties because he likely will hit so much better than McCann.

Some interesting decisions to make, and no doubt a topic that the organization must have put huge thought into. After all, we are talking about a No. 1/1 draft pick, the former top prospect in the sport and the face of the franchise.

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