How more first-pitch swinging could help at least one Oriole

The Orioles All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman had such a good season in 2023 that MLB Network recently ranked him as the No. 1 catcher in the sport right now. Hard to be better than No. 1.

Despite that, Rutschman, who will turn 26 on Feb. 6, could still finding another gear for his offense and he is coming into what should be his most productive years as he gets closer to age 30.

Over 154 games last season he batted .277/.374/.435/.809 with 31 doubles, a triple, 20 homers, 84 runs, 92 walks and 80 RBIs. His strikeout rate dropped from the year before from 18.3 to 14.7 and his walk-rate, already strong, held steady at 13.8 to 13.4. In addition to being an All-Star, he won a Silver Slugger award and was ninth in the AL MVP vote after finishing 12th the year before.

Rutschman now has two .800 OPS seasons on his resume with an .806 OPS in 2022 for an OPS+ of 131. His OPS in 2023 was .809 and his OPS+ was 128.

In addition, several of his Statcast defensive metrics are solid. He was ninth in the majors in the Statcast blocks above average metric. He was 11th in their framing stat and tied for 12th with a 1.91 pop time on throws to second base. Only five catchers topped 1.90. He was just 23rd in the metric they call caught stealing above average. He threw out 31 percent of base stealers in 2022 and 22 percent last year.

The Orioles know that most nights in the summer their catcher will be better than their opponents. They are getting what you hope for from a player taken No. 1 overall in the MLB Draft.

But there may be one tweak or adjustment he could make to help his offense take the next step. He could get more aggressive swinging earlier in the count, especially at the first pitch. It would be taking a page in a sense out of Gunnar Henderson’s book. When Henderson got more aggressive early in the count last May his offense trended up and it all led to his winning the AL Rookie of the Year award and winning Most Valuable Oriole as well.

Could Rutschman do something similar? Absolutely yes, I believe.

Sometimes it drives fans crazy when a batter swings at the first pitch. But time and time again, year after year, the stat sheet tells us that can be a very good strategy. The results are there to prove it.

When any Oriole put the 0-0 pitch into play last season the club batted .373 and produced an OPS of 1.001. In other words, MVP-type stats. Often a pitcher makes that pitch too good trying to get ahead in the count. Batters have the option to swing or not and can zone in on a particular pitch in a particular spot. If they get it, hack away and results often follow.

The O’s batting average on the first pitch in the 2023 season ranked fourth-best in the majors and their high OPS was seventh best. Yep, seven teams averaged 1.000 or better OPS when putting the first pitch in play. In fact, 21 teams produced a .900 or plus OPS in those situations. The team that ranked last in first-pitch OPS was Arizona. The Diamondbacks were 30th but at .839.

Just three MLB teams (Atlanta, Texas and the Los Angeles Dodgers) had an OPS of .800 or better for the full year, on all pitches. A team producing an .839 would have been second to the Braves .878.

We hear “work the count” so much but the evidence is there. First-pitch swinging works. The if here is if you swing at a very hittable pitch. Before any count gets to two strikes, hitters can be very selective. They don’t have to offer at the first pitch, but if it’s a meatball, I say go get it.

Henderson last year hit .481 with an OPS of 1.409 on the first pitch. So yeah, wow. Adley hit .359/.913. But by swinging at the first pitch just 12.0 percent of the time, Rutschman was first in the majors at taking the pitch. In fact, he had 39 at-bats putting the first pitch in play and Gunnar had 77.

If the Orioles and really all teams, did so well on the first pitch, should Rutschman consider being more aggressive in certain spots on the 0-0 count? Could it help his already solid offense get to an even more productive place?

A new international signing day arrives: The Orioles are expected to unveil a new international signing class today as a new signing day arrives for the sport. Teams can sign international amateurs beginning today through Dec. 15, 2024.

The Orioles, who have $7,114,800 in their signing pool, are expected to add these as their top four signees: Shortstop Emilio Sanchez, outfielder Stiven Martinez, shortstop Elvin Garcia and shortstop Jerome Brown.

I reported earlier here that Sanchez is expected to get a signing bonus of just over $1 million with Martinez just under $1 million and Garcia around $500,000. 

It is a big week for the O's international efforts with new players being added today and the club officially opening its new facility in the Dominican Republic tomorrow with an opening ceremony.

The O's international program has made large strides in recent years and now features catcher Samuel Basallo as its top player. He is ranked now as a top 100 prospect and is the club's No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America.

In the last three classes, beginning in 2021, the O's have signed four players to bonuses of $1 million or more. 



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