The 2021 season didn’t go as hoped for Jackson Rutledge.
Opening the year at High-A Wilmington, the Nationals’ 22-year-old pitching prospect had an opportunity to move up the organizational ladder in his first full professional season since being drafted 17th overall in 2019. But a strained rotator cuff, a blister and a few up-and-down starts later, Rutledge found himself in Low-A Fredericksburg with a 7.68 ERA over just 36 1/3 innings.
“It’s definitely not the way that I had planned or expected my season to go,” Rutledge told NBC Sports Washington in a phone interview. “Certainly less than ideal but closing out the year right now I think that I’m on a right path…Obviously, I didn’t plan to be in Low-A and have the ERA that I do but it’s just something you make adjustments off of and continue to improve upon and not let these injuries happen again.”
Rutledge hopes a change in his mechanics will allow him to put his rotator cuff injury behind him. After coaches determined he was rotating too early in his delivery, the right-hander has developed a cleaner throwing motion that puts less pressure on his shoulder. Not only has that minimized the risk of re-injury, it’s also helped Rutledge finish his pitches and let his stuff play.
The effects were evident over his final three starts at Fredericksburg, where he allowed three runs (2.38 ERA) with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 11 1/3 innings to close out the season. While Rutledge wasn’t going very deep into games, he felt that he was pitching as well as he ever has.
“Something that I kind of realized in myself this last month of the season is that when I go out with the intent of trying to make hitters look stupid, that’s when I pitch the best,” Rutledge said. “Just being high energy and not trying to make everything perfect but attack hitters with intent. I think that’s gonna be where I’m most successful.”
With the injury behind him, he’s been able to focus on the finer points of pitching while developing his curveball as an effective complement to his fastball and slider.
“At the beginning of the year, it was something that I would just throw in bullpens,” Rutledge said of his curve. “It wasn’t really anything I knew how to use and it wasn’t anything that I could throw consistently. Now, I think the past two or three outings I’ve been able to locate that [and] use it as an effective 0-0 pitch, 1-0 pitch and have the confidence to throw it. I even threw one 3-2, which at the beginning of the year I would have no business doing.”
Rutledge is an imposing presence on the mound, standing at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds with a fastball that reaches the high 90s. Even as he’s bounced around the Nationals’ farm system between injuries, he’s still struck out 10.2 hitters per nine innings this season and remains their fourth overall prospect by MLB Pipeline. The Nats felt they were getting a steal when he fell to them late in the first round two years ago and their confidence in his abilities as a pitcher has only since been reinforced.
However, other teams’ weariness over his injury history has proven valid as well. Rutledge has already planned a different offseason regimen for this winter due to his injury-shortened season. He’ll report to the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach to log more innings and get back some of the work he missed.
It’s there where Rutledge will look to build his endurance and set himself up for a much more successful — and lengthy — campaign in 2022.
“The most important thing that I’ve learned this year is that it’s a really long season and being consistent through however many starts I get is the most important thing,” Rutledge said. “The best pitchers aren’t great for one day, they’re good for the entire season. That’s something that, for example, Max Scherzer has been really good at. He gets a lot of innings and is really good throughout those innings and I think that’s something that I want to make my priority.”