Almost exactly one year ago, I talked about the possibility of DJ LeMahieu threatening Josh Rutledge for the second base job. It seemed unlikely at the time, but as spring rolled into summer, LeMahieu's steady glove proved to be a better option than Rutledge's ineffective bat, especially with the Rockies remaining within five games of the division lead into late July.
One year later, I think the tables are about to turn. LeMahieu has a clear advantage on the defensive side of the ball, but if Rutledge can make some strides here and and get back in a groove at the plate, questions about whether LeMahieu's advantage with the glove is enough to warrant playing time over Rutledge's advantage with the bat will begin to surface.
In hopes of kicking off a discussion, I'll go over seven reasons why I believe Rutledge has a good shot to overtake LeMahieu in the race for the second base job.
1) Rutledge has hit at every minor league level
Minor league stats can often be deceiving, but Rutledge's numbers tell an interesting story. He's never been too old for a level and he hasn't racked up several hundred plate appearances at Colorado Springs to bloat his performance. He's just gotten the job done in every minor league uniform he's been in for at least 50 plate appearances.
2011: Modesto (High A) - .931 OPS (523 plate appearances)
2012: Tulsa (AA) - .846 OPS (379 plate appearances)
2013: Colorado Springs - 1.032 OPS (162 plate appearances)
Last three minor league seasons: .917 OPS (1,064 plate appearances)
Batting stats are not the only thing you look at when it comes to evaluating players in the minors, but as far as this test is concerned, Rutledge has passed it with flying colors.
2) Josh is a spray hitter
In the spring of 2012, I followed the Tulsa Drillers around the Texas League for a couple of weeks. The player I was most excited to see at the time was Nolan Arenado, but the guy who consistently put in the best at bats was Josh Rutledge.
He always hit at the top of the order because of the club's attempt to maximize his plate appearances, but he also proved to be very efficient in that roll for a guy who didn't walk much. Over and over again he would line the ball in pretty much every direction between the lines. There wasn't a good way to defend him, and opposing pitchers became visibly frustrated on multiple occasions when Rutledge took good pitches and dropped them into the outfield for hits.
When this guy is in a groove, he's a pain to deal with because he uses every inch of the ballpark. That should eventually work to his advantage is he makes Coors Field his permanent home.
3) His luck is bound to improve
Josh Rutledge had the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of any position player on the Rockies last season. He finished the year at .276, but it was all the way down at .246 before his September call up, and for a guy who sprays the ball like he does, that just shouldn't happen. With his batting profile, Rutledge is a guy who should actually have a slightly above average BABIP - Not up near .400 like he's shown at times in the minors, but certainly a guy who can keep things closer to .330 than .300 once he settles in.
I would be utterly shocked if Rutledge didn't have a higher BABIP next season.
4) He fought back late in the year.
By all accounts, 2013 was an extremely disappointing year for Josh Rutledge. He struggled out of the gate, the league adjusted well to him when they saw him a second time, his strikeout percentage rose to over 20% in the middle of the season, DJ LeMahieu played outstanding defense behind him and took his job away, he had to deal with the disappointment of getting sent down to Colorado Springs, he had to adjust to play different positions defensively when he was briefly called back up during Tulo's rib injury, and he was also banged up a little and missed some playing time while he was with the Sky Sox.
Dealing with all of this during a three and a half month period would destroy the confidence of many ballplayers, but Rutledge didn't let it wreck his entire season. Instead, he took it all in stride, never once complained, got off the mat, and spent the end of the season posting an OPS over 1.000 in Colorado Springs, posting an OPS of .812 in Denver when he was called back up in September, and also looked a little better on the defensive side of the ball.
The ability to shake off adversity the way Rutledge showed during the last eight weeks of 2013 is very impressive, and the experience should make him a stronger player going forward.
5) Going into 2013, Rutledge was bound to run into a road block at some point
From September of 2011 to August of 2012, Josh Rutledge made the leap from a High A player in Modesto to an above average hitting middle infielder in the big leagues. That type of journey just doesn't happen in less than a year very often. I like Josh as a player, but that's the kind of rise you usually only get from the super prospects.
The game of baseball was bound to knock him on his rear end sooner or later, and boy did it get its revenge during the first half of 2013. However, as we discussed above, Rutledge rebounded nicely, and when you step back, look at Rutledge's overall journey, and take into consideration that he's only going to turn 25 in April, it's not unreasonable at all to think Rutledge can make his bat stick at the major league level a second time around.
Many successful major league players have a valley just before they lock on to what it takes to perform well in the majors, especially when that valley follows the type of rise Rutledge displayed in 2012.
6) Rutledge showed he's willing to adjust
One of the biggest criticisms of Josh Rutledge in 2012 was the fact that he just couldn't draw a walk. In fact, at one point in Tulsa, he went over 100 plate appearances without a free pass. His AA and major league BB% numbers from that season were equally terrible - 3.7% in Tulsa and 3.1% with the Rockies.
However, even as everything else in his world came crashing down in 2013, Rutledge focused on and successfully improved his BB% - 7.4% in Colorado Springs, and 7.0% in the majors. This aspect of the game will always be tough for Josh because he looks to be one of those hitters that can do significant damage early in counts when he's locked in, but he did show his ability to attack weaknesses in his game and his willingness to make adjustments with his walk rate in 2013.
7) He's already an excellent base runner
Other than Carlos Gonzalez, is there anybody else you'd rather have on base representing the tying run on this team? Josh just has those natural instincts you see in good base runners. He's fast when he gets going, he can take off like a jack rabbit, and he generally makes very smart decisions about when to steal and when to take an extra bag.
This aspect of his game was diminished in 2013 because he struggled to get on base so much, but make no mistake that Rutledge is likely to get an extra boost in production here if he can get his bat to adjust to major league pitching. He's a nightmare for opposing pitchers to deal with, and if he's batting second, the opponent could really have their hands full when he's on base and Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are at the plate.
* * * * * *
By trading trusty Jonathan Herrera away, the Rockies may be telling you that they like Rutledge's chances too. If Rutledge's bat turns out to be a weapon, LeMahieu's defensive versatility may actually become even more useful as you can give Arenado and Tulo days off without blowing a hole in two positions.
Either way, I think Colorado fans are about to be treated to a very competitive and hard fought battle for the second base job between two guys who each bring a unique set of skills to the table.
Right on cue. Fangraphs has the second part of an article out today where they measure expected offensive production based on each batter's peripherals. Josh Rutledge ranked as one of the top ten guys in terms of seeing his actual offense output trail his expected offensive output the most.
Ken Rosenthal puts the microscope on Orioles owner Peter Angelos and questions how much he had to do with the Grant Balfour signing falling through, as well as how much his actions over they years may be hurting the team.