Nats prospect watch: Rutledge focusing on harnessing strength

The Nationals’ new pitching coordinator is veteran coach and former major league pitcher Brad Holman, who takes over for Paul Menhart, now the Nats pitching coach.

Holman was the pitching coach for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies last season, and was the bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers from 2015-2017.

Holman has had time to get a good look at and work with the pitching prospects in the Nats system, with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in 2018, Fresno in 2019, in the instructional league and now the most recent spring training.

Over the next couple of weeks, we will ask him about several of Nats prospects, based on the MLB Pipeline Nats Top 30. We begin with the Nats’ top pitching prospect.

Rutledge-Throws-San-Jacinto-Sidebar.jpgNo. 3 Jackson Rutledge

Rutledge is a 6-foot-8, 250-pound right-hander from San Jacinto College in Texas. He was the Nats’ top selection from the 2019 amateur draft.

Rutledge, 20, finished the season well for low Single-A Hagerstown in 2019, going 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA in six starts over 37 1/3 innings, striking out 39. Holman said Rutledge checks all the boxes to being a top-flight starter for the Nats in the future.

“Obviously, he’s a big kid with exceptional stuff,” Holman said. “He can really spin a breaking ball, his fastball mid-90’s, and he’s got some hop. He’s an intellectual kid with some desire to sequence his pitches and those types of things. He’s really into the numbers. He likes analytics, which is also good considering that’s kind of the popular trend in our industry.

“He just needs to grow as a pitcher. Stuff-wise, he’s as good as anybody we got. Kind of working more towards the command of that stuff I guess would be his emphasis. Absolutely, absolutely looking forward to seeing what he becomes in the next couple of years.”

So what is it like teaching a pitcher who comes down off the mound at a hitter from a 6-foot-8 frame? Holman said the pitcher’s size is not as big a deal as his endurance in a long season.

“He’s a thick body guy for his size,” Holman said. “He’s an extremely hard worker. With that said, that could be as much of detriment as an advantage. So what we have kind of focused on with Jackson is helping him to understand the duration and the length of a professional season, and how to take that in stride and caution him about doing too much.

“If anything, with him we are going to have to pull the reins back, but he’s definitely not a guy we are going to have to motivate to work hard or to compete well. He’s got all those intangibles. This first (full) year we will see how his program holds up over the course of a long season. Of course, this year we may not find out because it’s not going to be a long season, maybe.”

Rutledge throws four pitches: fastball, curveball, slider and a changeup. Holman says Rutledge brings to the mound a high motor and is a ferocious competitor, and the Nationals want to make sure the former Arkansas pitcher doesn’t try to overdo it.

“Command-wise, I think the one thing that we have discussed here recently is was just understand the difference between a delivery flaw and an emotional flaw,” Holman said. “So if he’s overthrowing the baseball - which, like I said, he has a tendency to compete sometimes to the point of over-competing - then he needs to recognize what creates that deficiency. That’s something that we’ve discussed. He’s really open to conversation and open to ideas on all of his pitches.

“His changeup is one that he’s been focused on recently. But he has exceptional stuff across the board, and it’s just a matter of learning to control his effort level. When he does that, he’s not cheating himself. The ability to execute a pitch is just as important as what’s on the pitch. That’s been the message. He’s done some things to move in that direction.”

Holman said the organization’s coaches have a way to get their pitchers to not overthrow from the beginning of their outings.

“We have a little program in our bullpen routine called a ‘soft-9.0,” he said. “That’s where we have the pitcher’s first nine pitches be extreme low-effort level. We move the catcher from down the middle to glove side and really expand the zone, just to kind of take the strike zone out of the mind of the pitcher. The goal is to create a lane and stay in that lane regardless of where your catcher sits, trying not to miss left or right. He does that really, really well.”

Holman says Nationals coaches work all the time with young pitchers who have the ability to use their strength to mow down hitters from the first inning on. His focus with these prospects is to harness that power so that the pitcher can go six and seven frames instead of three or four.

“That invincibility, I lived it. I get it,” Holman said, recounting his earlier days of professional baseball. “You are young, you think you can run right through a wall and nothing can hurt you. So it’s our job to (harness that power). We become the bad guy in the midst of it, but just to get these guys to understand the importance of progressively building up into game-speed-type mode and also to understand that the effort level isn’t always conducive to being your best.”

But Holman wanted to reiterate that Rutledge is the real deal, and that he starts from a base that few pitchers have. This will benefit Rutledge as he climbs the ladder in the Nats system.

“Stuff-wise, he is through the roof,” Holman said. “His ceiling is high because of it.”

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