FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – Not too long ago, Jackson Rutledge was the Nationals’ No. 1 overall prospect. A lot of promise surrounded the big first-round pick out of San Jacinto Junior College in Texas.
He made 10 starts in his first professional season, pitching to a 2-0 record, 3.13 ERA and 0.991 WHIP between rookie ball and Single-A during 2019.
Then, of course, he, like all minor leaguers, missed out during the pandemic-canceled 2020 season.
Coming into last year, Rutledge was joined by 2020 first-round pick Cade Cavalli as the Nationals’ top two prospects.
But while Cavalli quickly rose through the ranks, ultimately reaching Triple-A, Rutledge was hampered by injuries and left behind in A ball.
A shoulder injury and a blister on his throwing hand limited Rutledge to 13 starts and 36 ⅓ innings last year. He finished 1-6 with a 7.68 ERA and 1.651 WHIP between the Rookie-level Florida Complex League and high Single-A Wilmington. A 22-year-old first-rounder yet to reach Double-A.
Now after making six appearances and pitching 19 ⅓ innings in the Arizona Fall League to finish 2021 and then getting over minor setbacks in spring training and earlier this season, Rutledge has finally hit his stride at low Single-A Fredericksburg.
“Yeah, definitely the sigh of relief is I feel really good right now,” Rutledge said outside the FredNats clubhouse in left field at Virginia Credit Union Stadium. “And I feel like I can continue pitching for another couple of months. So that's what I want to have every year is to prepare myself to the point where I can go the entire year without being hurt. Obviously, I had a little bit of a hiccup in spring training. But beyond that, it's been every start I've been making, aside from like a weird ankle sprain. But every start as far as arm health has been great. And I'm continuing on that path.”
That healthy path has led Rutledge to a 7-6 record, 4.78 ERA, 1.375 WHIP, 9.0 strikeout per nine innings and 3.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio this year.
“I think the bread and butter is fastball command, something that's greatly improved this year and continuing to get better every time out,” he said. “You know, not missing over the plate, hitting my spots. And going from there with a two-seam and being able to mix the changeup in on that, it's been really effective in getting early contact.”
The 6-foot-8, 243-pound right-hander has been even better as of late.
He struck out seven while allowing three runs over six innings in his latest start on Tuesday, his third straight quality start.
He has allowed three runs or less in six consecutive starts. Over that stretch, Rutledge has a 2.13 ERA, 1.026 WHIP and 40 strikeouts to 11 walks.
“I'd say the biggest factor in my success right now is my changeup use,” Rutledge said. "Because it's now a pitch that I can throw where I want to and I can throw it in any count. I think the most pivotal pitch in my last outing was a 1-0 changeup that I threw with a man on first and second, and got a double play ball. So that's something that before I didn't have the confidence in it to throw it in a count like that. But now I do and it's been super beneficial.”
In between his last two starts, Rutledge learned of Cavalli’s promotion to the Nationals for his major league debut, and he was excited to see his friend and fellow prospect pave the way for other young pitchers in the organization.
“Super exciting. Really happy for him,” Rutledge said of Cavalli’s call to The Show. “He's gonna shove and hopefully he's gonna shove for a long time. And so having him kind of, I guess lead the way for some of us other guys is going to be exciting. And we hope to get that group of us down here into Nats Park and start having some success, both individually and as a team.”
That group of young pitchers could include Rutledge with the likes of Cavalli, MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray. A thought that has already crossed the now 23-year-old’s mind.
“Yeah, definitely,” Rutledge said. “You know, like I said, right now it's day-to-day. It's worrying about the next start. But I'm not playing baseball to be a low A player. Obviously, everybody that plays has ambition to be in the big leagues. And that's my goal is to be a contributor in the big leagues for a long time. And so definitely being a part of that group is the goal and we hope to win a lot of games with that group of starters.”
In order to reach that long-term goal, Rutledge keeps himself grounded in the present. His recent string of success (and to a certain extent his draft status) might normally be enough to earn him a promotion back to high Single-A. But he doesn’t let that, or the fact that he’s fallen outside the top 10 of Nats prospects, deter him from his work on a daily basis at Fredericksburg.
“Right now, it's just day-to-day,” he said. “It's worrying about the next start because the movements aren't my decision. So for me, it's just what can I do today to prepare myself for next Tuesday or whatever the next start is. And that's just all I have to think about.”
That start-to-start focus has allowed Rutledge to rediscover himself as a pitcher and get closer to realizing his potential as a top prospect.
“I think this year, I'm pitching like myself,” he said. “I'm not trying to do too much. I know myself really well and I know my stuff, and I have confidence in that stuff. The scouting reports are all coming from my own work. I'm developing my own plans in order to attack hitters and attack lineups. And just being able to do that and have confidence and know what my stuff is going to do, where it's going to play, that's the biggest difference. And I can go out and have confidence in that and not have to worry about anything else really. Just being myself.”