Between April of 2011 and August of 2012, Josh Rutledge skyrocketed through the Rockies organization faster than anyone could have imagined possible. The journey began at High A Modesto two summers ago where Rutledge posted a .348 batting average and a .931 OPS from the shortstop position. He was then able to translate that success through both time and place in 2012, proving to be the best player on the AA Tulsa Drillers through July, and then getting a call up to the show and posting a 1.008 OPS in his first 40 games (145 plate appearances) in Denver.
Then the bubble busted. Rutledge's performance at the plate suffered in September of last season when he was dealing with a left quadriceps injury as well as a month long exposure to major league pitching. In addition, his defensive shortcomings at the shortstop position were becoming more apparent with every game. It was a downward spiral that continued into the 2013 season.
Due to his impressive 2012 performance through August, Rutledge was handed the second base job out of Spring Training in April, and appeared in 43 of the Colorado's first 45 games. However, it did not go well.
Josh tried a more patient approach at the plate in 2013 (more on this in a moment) in response to the league attempting to take advantage of his low walk rate and aggressiveness, and when he did, he suddenly lost his ability to hit for average and spray the ball all over the park (something he did with amazing regularity in both Tulsa and his first six weeks in Denver in 2012). Whether it was a slump, bad luck, or a struggle to consistently get the good part of the bat on the ball with all the adjustments being thrown at him on the fly, Josh's BABIP dropped to .262 in those opening 43 games, and consequently, his overall batting average fell to .242.
Now while batting average may be overrated in general, it's the bread and butter of Rutledge's game. Everything else flows off it. Josh has some pop in his bat, especially for a guy his size, but not enough to post a respectable slugging percentage without a strong batting average at its base. Josh also demonstrated an ability to draw more walks in 2013, but again, not enough to post a respectable on base percentage without a strong batting average at its base. Then just to pile on, a low batting average also prevents Rutledge from using his extremely impressive base running skills - He still hasn't been caught in 19 attempts to swipe a bag at the major league level.
In order for his game to be effective, Josh has to hit for average, spray the ball from line to line, surprise a few pitchers by going deep every once in a while, and just be a general thorn in the side of the opponent. He wasn't able to do that this season, and after opening an important home stand against the Giants and D'Backs in mid May with just two hits in 16 plate appearances (this is when the Dodgers were in the cellar and these three teams were separated by less than a game atop the division standings), Rutledge was replaced by the slick fielding DJ LeMahieu and sent down to Colorado Springs.
He would get recalled a month later for his second of three stints with the big club when Tulo was forced to the DL with a broken rib in mid June, but this proved to be nothing more than emergency fill in duty and Rutledge actually struggled at the plate even more here than he did at the onset of the season, hitting just .143 with an OPS of .425 in a mere 78 plate appearances.
However, during his broken time at AAA Colorado Springs, Rutledge did show that he can hit the pitching at that level pretty well. Granted, it was only for 162 plate appearances and everybody hits well in the Pacific Coast League, but Rutledge did hit better than just about anyone else on the team, posting a 1.032 OPS and leading the Sky Sox with a .371 batting average (minimum 100 plate appearances) and in on base percentage at .444. In addition, an impressive 15.4% of Rutledge's at bats in a Sky Sox uniform ended with an extra base hit, which again led the team (minimum 100 plate appearances). For reference, 14.6% of Corey Dickerson's plate appearances in a Sky Sox uniform ended in an extra base hit (although Corey did it in a larger sample size).
All of this leaves Rutledge at an interesting crossroads. Entering his age 25 season, Josh has shown that he's better than just a minor league player, but at the same time, he hasn't yet figured out how to get his skills to consistently translate to the major league level. Since his rapid and remarkable ascension from Modesto to Denver, Rutledge has gotten knocked on his rear end and experienced some significant growing pains. How he handles this experiences and eventually responds to it will ultimately determine if he's real major league material or just a fringe roster guy who survives along the league's cliff for a few seasons. So far, he seems to be taking things in stride, but the real test comes next season in what will be a huge year for him.
Increased patience at the plate:
One of the most encouraging things about Rutledge's numbers this season is his increased walk rate. After walking in just 3.7% of his plate appearances in AA Tulsa and just 3.1% of his plate appearances with the Rockies in 2012, Rutledge got that number to jump up to 7.0% with the Rockies and 7.4% with the Sky Sox this season. Just as important is the fact that he did this without suffering a dramatic rise in his strikeout rate, which shows you that he's learning to battle better as he gets deep in counts.
According to Fangraphs, Josh's pitch selection and contact ability have have also gotten better, supplying the foundation to his increased walk rate. In 2012, Rutledge swung at 50.5% of the pitches he saw (well above league average which is 45.6%). This year, he cut that number down to 45.3%.
It gets even better though when you take a closer look at which pitches Rutledge has stopped swinging at. In 2012, Rutledge swung at 35.5% of pitches out of the zone and 65.4% of pitches in the strike zone. In 2013, Rutledge swung at 29.2% of pitches out of the zone 61.7% of pitches in the strike zone. That means that Rutledge swung at 6.3% fewer pitches out of the zone in 2013, and 3.7% fewer pitches in the zone in 2013. So he's not just standing up there, being patient and guessing which pitches to swing at, he's demonstrating a real improvement in identifying which pitches he should pull the trigger on.
Combine this with slightly improved contact numbers on pitches both in and out of the strike zone, and it's fair to say that the underpinnings of Rutledge's game actually took a step forward in 2013, which is really good news considering that the hard numbers were pretty terrible. Now he needs to find a way to build on this and turn his game up a notch in next season.
2013 Grade with the Rockies: C-
Rutledge's offense contributions were extremely poor, he had his job taken away by DJ LeMahieu, he got sent to AAA twice, and his fielding (although getting better) still leaves quite a bit to be desired. But at the end of the day, I just can't fail him. Josh kind of comes across as the kid who hasn't quite mastered the subject yet but is really trying his heart out to get things right. He stays after school to work on his mistakes (goes to Colorado Springs without complaining and posts some very strong numbers), hands in all of his assignments (takes advantage of the things he's really good at like base running), and shows some signs that he might break through at some point (more patience at the plate, an improved walk rate, and better defense according to the eye test in September). For these reasons, he avoids a "D" or an "F".
|2013 - Josh Rutledge||88||285||45||67||6||1||7||19||22||62||12||0||.235||.294||.337|
Rutledge is under team control through the 2018 season, has two options left, and is not arbitration eligible until after the 2015 season, so as long as he's not traded this winter, he's not going anywhere.
As far as what to expect from Josh next season? That's a real wild card. The best case scenario is that he builds on the peripheral stats he put up in 2013 and gets comfortable spraying the ball all over the park again; only this time at the major league level. Realistically, he'll bat in the .280 to .300 range, post an above average on base percentage, reach double digit home runs, and play average defense at second after wrestling the job back away from DJ LeMahieu. If he does this, he's a 3.0 WAR player in 2014.
Unfortunately, he could also never get his hitting skill to translate to the major league level, always be several steps behind DJ's defense at second, and never amount to anything more than the 25th man on the roster.
Both of those scenarios are real possibilities, but the most likely one falls somewhere in between. Rutledge makes some improvement at the plate and approaches more neutral wRC+ territory, but still finds it tough sledding and can't quite get his bag of tricks that work in the minors to translate. He becomes the new Jonathan Herrera (only with more speed), filling in when DJ LeMahieu, and Troy Tulowitzki need days off, pinch hitting late in games when a base knock is needed, or pinch running late in games when the Rox need to swipe a bag. He is a jack rabbit on the base paths after all.
While a huge breakout is unlikely, I would expect Rutledge to take some steps forward and become a positive asset to the club in 2014.