As Nats minor league pitching coordinator Brad Holman told me this week, it’s all about moving the ball around the strike zone instead of narrowly avoiding it.
“It’s definitely been the emphasis during camp,” Rutledge said during a Zoom video session with reporters. “I think I’ve actually gotten a lot better since the first week. I’ve really been not necessarily focused on the shape of my pitches or how I’m using them, but just filling up a zone and going right at hitters. Getting hitters out that way rather than trying to hit corners and be too fancy with things.”
Holman said one tough part about the camp is that the players cannot have normal games against real opponents. When Rutledge is pitching, he is pitching to teammates and cannot go all out when he pitches inside, so that makes it tough to practice trying to move batters off the plate.
“It definitely is,” Rutledge said. “If it’s a normal game and you are competing for a win, I think it’s a lot different where you can pitch inside to back somebody up or change how they are seeing the ball. But your own guys in a sim game, it’s hard to throw in because of the possibility that it’s probably going to hurt and it’s essentially for nothing. Really, during these sim games there’s really no winner and loser there. Still trying to do it, but it can be a little bit tough.”
Rutledge, 21, has a lethal four-seam fastball, firing it in the upper 90’s. The right-hander broke down what he is working on to improve his command of this pitch in and around the strike zone.
“With the command, the main focus is just focus,” Rutledge said. “When I’m playing catch, I’m trying to hit the guy in the chest every time. When I throw a plyo ball (overweight or underweight balls used to help increase velocity), I have a target that I am throwing at. In games, I have adjusted my rhythm a little bit. I’ve slowed down, try to really stay over my back leg more. That’s helped me get better extension and be able to move the ball where I wanted to better.”
Rutledge is honing his command on his fastball, and also looking to improve his changeup. He does that by working on his grip for it, and how that fits into his arm mechanics.
“As far as the changeup, the biggest thing that I have changed is my intent on it,” Rutledge said. “I’m really just trying to throw it off of my fastball at the knees and kind of let the grip play and change 9-10 mph and get that different sort of horizontal break on it.”
Rutledge said the hitter who has really tested him is Jake Noll. The 26-year-old infielder made the opening day roster with the Nats in 2019 and has continued to swing the bat well. Rutledge said Noll would foul off pitch after pitch against him during their matchups, making it tough to record the out.
“It’s definitely different,” Rutledge said of facing hitters with major league experience. “Just their plate discipline is at another level that I’ve kind of never seen before. The ability to foul pitches off. If you execute a good slider where you wanted to, they will still be able to foul it off. So, it’s a little bit tougher to get those guys out, especially the older, more experienced ones. I’m learning how to do that and continually getting better at it.”
Holman said that there aren’t enough players at the alternate training site to play full games, especially when the Nats go on the road and take five players from Fredericksburg for their taxi squad. And without a set schedule of night games as Rutledge would normally have in the minor leagues, guys have free time at the end of the day.
“A lot of time is spent on determining what carryout we are going to get for the day,” Rutledge said. “We have sampled just about every restaurant in Fredericksburg at this point. A lot of times we will go fishing. We are lucky there are a lot of lakes and rivers around that is socially distance enough. Playing some NBA2K or Call of Duty to pass some time.”
Rutledge recommended Orofino’s Italian restaurant in Fredericksburg as his go-to carryout, and said that teammate Taylor Gushue has taught him a thing or two about fishing.
“He’s got a little more experience than I do,” Rutledge said. “I just started.”