Michael Rucker doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t up to him.
They’re going to be tied together without the rope. In conversations and stories, in roster and pitching staff projections. While speculating whether the Orioles can carry both of them.
At least they won’t be total strangers, with Rucker getting to know Bailey before transferring from Gonzaga to BYU and while competing in the West Coast Conference.
Rucker was a freshman at Gonzaga as Bailey made his official visit to the university.
“He had just undergone Tommy John surgery was there enjoying what Gonzaga was all about,” Rucker said last week during the “Orioles Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan.
“I didn’t really interact with him a whole lot, but after I transferred to Brigham Young, we had our fair share of matchups against each other. Especially in 2016 where during the 2016 season Gonzaga came to Provo, Utah, and we beat up on him a little bit. And in the conference tournament, they beat up on me a little bit. So had a little bit back and forth.
“I’m excited to talk about some of those memories with him. ... I’m sure we’ll have a lot in common.”
The Orioles plucked Rucker from the Cubs organization, where he made 34 of his 36 appearances last year at Double-A Tennessee.
“I was just barely waking up,” he said. “Over on the West Coast, the Rule 5 draft started at 9 a.m. and with my offseason schedule, that’s about the time I get up. I was going to track it and see what names were going to go and was fortunate and blessed and a little bit surprised to hear my own name.
“Not too crazy of a story, but I’m really excited about it.”
Rucker immediately joins Bailey, naturally, as candidates for a rotation that has only three certainties entering a new year - John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski. But he also could be a consideration for the bullpen after his 34 relief appearances last summer that produced a 4.28 ERA and 1.30 WHIP with 89 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings.
The switch to the bullpen came after Rucker made 26 starts with Tennessee in 2018 and went 9-6 with a 3.73 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 132 2/3 innings. He piggybacked the starter in some instances, but also worked fewer than two innings in nine games.
“That kind of transition is something that I’ve even done throughout college,” he said. “My freshman and sophomore year, I pitched in the bullpen and pitched well enough that they extended me out and to where eventually my junior year at BYU, they had me start. I was our Friday night starter and ran with it.
“I think part of maybe what the conversation is in regard to whether people think I profile more as a starter versus more of a reliever might be the pitches and command. Might be my height (listed at 6-foot-1). Just wanted to try a couple of different things out to see what would give me the best path to the big leagues and I think I’ve done pretty well at both of those things. That flexibility, I think, is something that makes me valuable and perhaps one of the reasons why the Orioles felt comfortable selecting me.
“Last spring training, I was built up as a starter throughout spring training. I didn’t make any relief appearances during spring training, and it wasn’t until the very end that our coordinator approached me and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about moving you to the ‘pen. This is kind of what we think and this might be your shot to make it to the big leagues.’ I was definitely a little bit surprised, having been preparing to be a starter.
“The first half of the season, it was more piggyback, getting used to throwing with fewer days rest in between, but still logging enough innings to where in the second half of the season in 2019 there was a mix between one- and two-inning outings. So a little bit of everything.”
Slow to fully accept the change in roles, Rucker posted an 8.78 ERA in April and a 6.08 ERA in May, but registered ERAs of 3.14, 2.55 and 2.12 in the last three months. He had a 1.42 WHIP in the first half and a 1.17 WHIP in the second.
“I think one of the biggest contributing factors of my success and some of my early woes in 2019 is just mentality,” he said. “Going from thinking I’m going to be a potential starter in Triple-A at the beginning of the year to, ‘OK, you’re going to be a reliever and you’re going to repeat Double-A.’ That was definitely a little bit hard for my mind to get wrapped around, but as I made the adjustment to pitching in the bullpen, pitching on fewer days rest, knowing that, hey, I don’t have to have four pitches out there all the time as a relief pitcher that’s not going to face the lineup more than one time, I can go out there with my two best pitches and compete and get guys out.
“I think going through that struggle was a big learning process for me and helped me to figure out who I was. I was able to bounce back and come back to form.”
Rucker’s strikeout total wasn’t an aberration. He’s totaled 343 in 331 innings since the Cubs drafted him in the 11th round in 2016.
“I do have a four-pitch mix, but my two best pitches are my four-seam fastball and my curveball,” he said. “My curveball is a little bit more of a sweeping action. The slider is a little bit harder, but works really well when back-footing to a lefty or getting the righty to chase. And then my changeup has definitely been a work in progress, but it’s been something that when it’s been on it’s been dynamite.
“That’s what I’ve been working on this offseason is trying to get where my pitches are able to get big league hitters out. I think they’re well on their way. Looking forward to 2020 for sure.”
The year begins with Rucker’s first placement on a major league camp roster. Orioles pitchers and catchers report Feb. 11.
“With the Cubs, I had opportunities to talk to a couple major leaguers, just being able to ask the occasional question without taking too much time away from their routine or whatever they’re working on,” he said.
“I’m just looking forward to the opportunity and the experience to learn and to grow.”