Rutledge ready to break out with health and developed changeup

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Jackson Rutledge looks like he’s ready for a breakout season. And not just because his 6-foot-8, 251-pound frame looks like it already belongs in the major leagues.

While he physically can measure up to anyone in the Nationals clubhouse, the former organizational top prospect still has some growing to do on the mound. And he’s doing it at a fast pace during major league spring training.

“It's been good,” Rutledge said. “Just talking to guys, learning some stuff and just being a part of things has been good. I like to think I'm in a good spot as far as how I'm pitching and I'd just like to keep that going and stay healthy.”

Staying healthy has been a key for him. After missing all of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and missing parts of the last two seasons with various injuries, the 2019 first-round pick hit his stride in the second half of last season at Single-A Fredericksburg.

As for the growth on the mound, he’s been able to keep that going while facing major league hitters.

Rutledge pitched two innings of a sim game on one of the back fields at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Friday. He faced big league hitters Lane Thomas, Keibert Ruiz, Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson and Matt Adams, while manager Davey Martinez, pitching coach Jim Hickey and other members of the major league coaching staff watched.

The 23-year-old did well for himself for a guy who hasn’t pitched above low Single-A ball going against guys with extended major league experience.

“It was awesome. He's made unbelievable strides. He really has,” Martinez said of Rutledge’s performance in the sim game. “He understands now that the number one thing is attacking the strike zone. And he's been really focused on that and trying to get ahead of hitters. He's worked on his breaking ball and it's a lot better. He's being able to throw strikes with it. And his changeup is actually really, really developing. He threw three plus-pitches. He had a really good year last year, so hopefully, we'll get him to build off of that and start off strong.”

While the skipper had high praise, Rutledge was a little harder on himself. His stuff clearly plays (he struck out Dickerson on three pitches, while getting the veteran to swing at each offering), but the big boys eventually made solid contact off the prospect. Rutledge was upset he left some fastballs too high after getting ahead in the count and wished he got them lower in the strike zone.

“I think I threw some good pitches,” he said. “I think I made some early-year mistakes. Left a couple 1-2 pitches where they shouldn't have been. And faced a bunch of veteran guys, especially a lot of left-handers, which for me is something I'm working to improve on. I got a lot of good feedback from them, which was good. I think my changeup took a big step that day, so I'm ready to keep continuing on with that.”

Rutledge’s arsenal includes fastball, changeup, curveball and slider. But as he and Martinez mentioned, the changeup has become a plus pitch for him, which led to his second-half success last year and, he hopes, leads to a fast start this season.

“Just threw it a lot. Threw it a lot this offseason, playing catch with it every day,” Rutledge said of his changeup. “It's just such a feel pitch that the more I throw it, the more it's going to improve as far as command and consistency. So just since really about halfway through last year, it's taken off and continuing to get better. And I think it could be my best pitch, especially against lefties.”

Smith was a lefty batter that got a first-hand look at the changeup during the sim game. The veteran slugger was able to provide some feedback right away, adding value to the experience for Rutledge.

“I think just how they see pitches,” Rutledge said of what he took away from facing major league hitters. “How they take stuff, how they kind of force you to sequence things. I talked with Dom a little bit after about how he sees me being able to get guys out, especially in that two-strike situation where, like I said, I missed a couple of times. Just kind of learned from them what kind of stuff they're looking for, what kind of stuff that is going to be able to consistently get them out.”

Partially thanks to his strong showing in the sim game and partially due to the fact he’s one of their top pitching prospects (currently No. 11 prospect in the Nats system per MLB Pipeline), Martinez has been looking for more opportunities to get Rutledge back in a major league setting.

Rutledge appeared in the Nats’ second game of Grapefruit League play, a split-squad game against the Mets on Feb. 26. He tossed a scoreless inning on 12 pitches, nine for strikes. With the three-hour drive to Lakeland this morning, Rutledge is joining a handful of young prospects making the trip to face the Tigers, and he’s likely to appear in the game.

“He's coming up, he's gonna pitch here soon,” Martinez said. “But we've been doing a whole lot of work with him developing his changeup a little bit, getting to land his curveball better early in counts. He's been doing really well. He's one guy that, from last year when I saw him, I know he had a pretty good year, to now this year, he's matured a lot. I think he understands who he can be, which is awesome.”

It won’t officially count toward his season total, but Rutledge will take any innings he can get after a slow start last year. Hopefully, that allows him to actually break out and fly up the system in 2023, instead of just looking like it in spring training.

“I gotta get a lot of innings,” Rutledge said. “I got about 100-something last year. So this year, I'm looking to get even more. I think last year I started a little bit slow. I started struggling a little bit and then eventually in the second half I got to where I should be. And so I think this year is just about doing that for the entire year. Not having the inconsistencies, not having the two-three-inning starts. And just being consistent and being under control the whole time. I think not trying to do too much. Just being me.”

“He's gonna start climbing the ladder here pretty soon,” Martinez said. “We love that about him. He's one of our guys. We look at him as part of the future.”

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