If projection systems prove correct, by the end of the 2023 baseball season, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman will have had another strong season. One strong enough to place him alongside the best players in the game.
Baltimorean Dan Szymborski, Senior writer for FanGraphs.com, contributor to ESPN, a data consultant and Baseball Writers' Association of America member, has run his ZiPS projection system since 2004. The computer projections use multi-year statistics, with more recent seasons weighted more heavily to attempt to tell us what stats the player might produce for the year ahead.
Szymborski’s system projects a final Wins Above Replacement number of 4.7 for Rutschman for the coming year. While that would actually be less than his 5.3 fWAR of 2022, it would place him among the top 10 or 12 players in baseball and Szymborski said he would rank behind Mike Trout and a few others and would be ahead of a talent such as Mookie Betts.
ZiPS sees Rutschman batting .262/.363/.460 this year with an .823 OPS, producing an OPS+ of 126, which is 26 percent above league average. He would hit 39 doubles with one triple, 18 homers and 63 RBIs.
Szymborski said his system projects a one in 10 chance that Rutschman could max out by batting .308/.417/.568, which would produce a .985 OPS for a 166 OPS+. Those numbers, if reached, would lead to 7.4 WAR. There have been just 24 catcher seasons of 7.0 WAR or better – one by former O’s backstop Chris Hoiles. That projection has Rutschman hitting 26 home runs and close to 50 doubles.
“He came into the draft as a very polished, almost finished product out of Oregon State," said Szymborski. "He was so impressive in the minors and the fact his defensive position is catcher is a pretty big deal when you talk about projections. A four or five WAR catcher makes it feel like a league average first baseman because of the offensive standards of the position. There is nothing not to like about him at this point."
Last year Rutschman produced an .806 OPS and a 128 OPS+. He finished second for the American League Rookie of the Year and was 12th in the AL MVP vote. While the projection has the raw OPS number going up a bit, the OPS+ is about where it was for 2022.
Szymborski said that should not surprise us.
“Every start is kind of riskier on the downside than the upside," he said. "There are a lot more things that could make him worse than, say, three WAR better. There is always downside risk for any star with four, five, six WAR. The general baseline expectation is a little bit less. You see it with Trout and Aaron Judge. There are more things that can go wrong.
“I wouldn’t worry that it’s a small dropoff. ZiPS kind of sees his ability with a baseline around 118 or 120 (OPS+) and sees him growing from that and continuing to grow in future seasons.”
The Steamer projection, another projection system, has already rolled out a look at all players for the 2023 season and has Rutschman producing 5.6 WAR, which would rank fifth in the majors. Rutschman would be behind only Juan Soto (7.1), Judge (6.9), Julio Rodríguez (5.9) and Betts (5.9).
Steamer sees Rutschman batting .256/.357/.439/.796 with 19 homers and 66 RBIs.
Per some Statcast numbers from last season, Rutschman, who turns 25 Feb. 6, ranks in the top four percent in the majors in walk percentage, the top 12 percent in whiff percentage, top 16 percent in framing percentage and top 21 percent in pop time to second base. His fWAR of 5.3 for 2022 led the Orioles, tied for first among big league rookies and was ninth among all AL hitters.
On the ZiPS system in projected 2023 WAR for all major league players, Rutschman comes in No. 11, behind Trout, Manny Machado, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramírez, Yordan Alvarez, Trea Turner, Soto and Judge. And he ranks as the best catcher in the majors.
Even coming off a strong rookie season and with projections for more success in 2023, there are areas on the stat sheet where Rutschman has plenty of room for growth. Last year, while he batted .280/.386/.503 against right-handed pitching, Rutschman was at .174/.287/.265 versus lefties. So an OPS of .889 batting left-handed and .552 with just one homer hitting right-handed.
Rutschman’s average exit velocity of 87.9 mph was a bit below the league average of 88.4. And his numbers against breaking pitches and off-speed trailed, by a big margin, his stats when putting a fastball in play.
Yep, he’s already a star, but is also a star that has room to grow. It should be fun to watch all this unfold over the next few years.
By the way, I'll check back in with Szymborski on a few other Orioles and their projections over the next few days and weeks. Dan grew up in Towson and graduated from Towson High and Loyola College. He's based in Ohio now, but the Orioles are still his favorite team. But when it comes to his ZiPS projections, it's raw data that his computer system projects and outputs with no opinion or bias shaded toward his childhood team.