The Nationals’ first-round selection in the First-Year Player Draft, right-hander Jackson Rutledge, said he was pretty excited when he got the news the Nationals had chosen him with the 17th pick in the draft.
“Hearing my name called was kind of an out-of-body experience,” Rutledge said. “It’s something you dream of and it (did not) really hit me until it happened.”
General manager Mike Rizzo was equally excited to be able to select Rutledge and feels the big right-hander brings a lot to the table, especially since many mock drafts did not believe a pitcher of Rutledge’s stature would still be available at No. 17.
“He’s got a good package for a starting pitcher,” Rizzo said. “He’s a big, physical guy with a good arm action. He’s got a quick arm, he’s got power stuff. We had scouted this guy a lot since his Arkansas days. We had to have seen him about 12 games this year start. He never missed a beat. His stuff never wavered.
“He was extremely efficient and consistent throughout the season. Like I said, he showed power stuff, upper-90s fastball with a good hard slider and a developing change. His command has vastly improved since he was a younger pitcher and he’s finally growing into that big body of his and we think he’s just scratching the surface.”
The right-hander was in the New York City/Secaucus, N.J., area this week leading up to the draft, and was part of the MLB Network in-studio coverage. That afforded Rutledge the opportunity to meet and speak to famous players like Randy Johnson and Nick Swisher, and enjoying “some the best pizza I’ve ever had” at Prince Street Pizza.
The 20-year-old went to high school in suburban St. Louis at Rockwood Summit High School, and was a fan of the Cardinals as a kid. He said all that changes now.
“I grew up in St. Louis, so I was a Cardinals fan for most of my life,” Rutledge said. “Guess I’m no longer a Cardinals fan. I just really wanted to go to wherever I could make a difference. I think Washington is definitely a place I could step in and be a guy, so I’m excited for that and am looking forward to it.
“(The Nats) had kind of been on the radar for a little bit. They’d been at just about every game of mine, so I kind of had a relationship with their scouting department.”
“First-round talent and everyone in that room today was extremely pleased when he was there picking 17,” said Nationals assistant general manager Kris Kline. “Moving very well. ... All of his pitches, four-pitch mix. They all come of out of his hand at the same spot with the same arm speed and he’s got good stuff.”
Rutledge started his collegiate career in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Arkansas, but injured his hip and had to have surgery. He decided his next step would be the junior college route at San Jacinto College in Texas.
“Yeah, so I had some issues with my hip at my season at Arkansas, ended up having surgery on it, had a torn labrum,” Rutledge said. “Kind of that led to the decision, figured it was going to be a safer route to go to San Jack and go somewhere I knew I could develop. I knew going into this year, I would have an opportunity. Looking back on it, it was a great decision.”
Rutledge has a verbal commitment to Kentucky, but the opportunity of pitching in in the major leagues is his ultimate dream.
Rutledge has worked on his slider recently to go with a 97 mph fastball, 12-to-6 curveball and a changeup. Former Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler, who is also from the St. Louis area, helped Rutledge with his changeup grip and now he feels very confident in the pitch.
“Really every one of my pitches I’ve worked on (is) improving in the past year,” Rutledge said. “The slider being the big one because that wasn’t a pitch that I threw until late last summer. This spring is the first time I’ve thrown that. And obviously it’s been really successful.
“The curveball, what I did is I had a slurve last year. And I broke that off into the slider and the curveball. Curveball, still continue to get better. But I think the slider is going to be my best pitch. And the changeup was actually something I worked on this past winter and changed the grip around a little bit. Learned the grip while playing catch with Ross Detwiler. So he showed me that. It’s been the most successful changeup I’ve thrown and I’m confident in it right now.”
“You know those St. Louis guys stick together,” Rizzo said when he heard about Detwiler’s influence. Detwiler was a first-round selection of the Nats in 2007 and pitched with Washington for most of his seven seasons in the majors. He last pitched one game for the Mariners in 2018.
Rutledge said his on mound style is an attempt to stay even keel, whether the outing is going well or he hits a rough patch. He looks to not get too emotional so that he is ready for the next at-bat, the next pitch.
“What I kind of do with my body language on the mound is I just try to keep it flat,” Rutledge explained. “I’m not a guy that’s just going to get up and start yelling when I strike a guy out. I am almost not a guy that’s going to get mad if I get a bomb hit off me.
“I’m going to kind of keep it flat, keep it consistent because I think that’s where success comes from: consistency. If I can start with my body language it’s going to lead to making more consistent pitches and eventually better pitches.”
Rutledge has also admired another Missouri native in Nats starter Max Scherzer, who hails from Chesterfield, Mo. He hopes to get the chance to talk with Scherzer and possibly work with him with the Nationals.
“I love watching Max Scherzer pitch,” Rutledge said. “Just the intensity he brings to the game. If I were a hitter, I would be scared to stand in the box just based on how he acts on the mound, how he controls the game. He really just dominates the entire zone. My particular style isn’t quite like that but he’s someone I could definitely learn from.”
In the end, the Nationals were thrilled to have Rutledge fall to them at No. 17, and quickly snatched him up. Big-bodied starters like a Lucas Giolito used to be the norm for Nats scouts to recommend. The Nats were not afraid to go after the 6-foot-8 Rutledge this time around.
“Good athlete. He has good mechanics,” Rizzo said. “He has a short arm throw, which helps keep him gathered over the rubber and, like I said, and he’s really grown into his body. His body has matured and his athleticism is much improved and the guy stays over the rubber well.
“He has a delivery under control and really good arm swing. We like the strides he’s already made, he’s a young 20-year-old kid and a guy that has a lot more finish to his game but a guy who has a lot of skills and a skill set that we really go after with our starting pitchers.”