Let’s be charitable and say 2012 represents a season to “forget” for fans of the Colorado Rockies. They own the third-worst record in baseball due, in no small part, to a dearth of legit Major League talent on their roster. The pitching staff is atrocious, with the third-worst FIP as a staff.
As far as offenses go, the Rockies are what one might expect from a team in the Mile High city. Despite franchise cornerstone Troy Tulowitzki only appearing in 47 games, the Rockies .329 wOBA ranks and 668 runs scored put them in the top three in the National League. Losing Troy Tulowitzki hasn’t hampered the Rockies as much as one would think. In his absence, a few players have stepped up to fill his considerably large shoes.
Marco Scutaro chipped in with a strong month at short when Tulo initially went down but Josh Rutledge has since taken the job and run with it. With Tulowitkzi on his way back and a move to second in Rutledge’s future, the Rockies think they have their middle infield sealed up for some time.
Unless you are a low-level fantasy degenerate, you might be very surprised to learn Josh Rutledge currently sports a .376 wOBA in just under 200 plate appearances. That is very good. It ranks him first among all SS with 190 PAs, which is shocking.
It wasn’t as though Josh Rutledge came out of nowhere to become the Rockies every day shortstop. Rutledge ranked 8th on Keith Law’s preseason Rockies top ten list and ninth on the BP list. While Goldstein and friends note Rutledge lacks the speed and athleticism to stick at short, his bat is praised for its potential (though lacking in power.)
After a hot start in the minor leagues, Rutledge made more believers in his ability to hit for average (read: doubles) at the big league level. Since his call-up in July, Rutledge has done nothing to slow the ascent of his stock as a player.
Early (small sample) returns on Rutledge’s defense back up the scouting reports – a move to second base is certainly in the best interests of everyone (not quite everyone, one member of the Blake Street Bulletin advocates moving Tulo to third and leaving Rutledge at short). The bat however, will play. Rutledge shows nothing short of hostility toward walking but the line drives ring out loud and true.
The big question for Rockies fans is a simple one: can Rutledge keep the line drives coming without any real plate discipline of which to speak? In 195 plate appearances, Rutledge has four walks. His swing rate heat map puts his “any and all comers” approach in stark contrast to the average right handed hitter.
While Rutledge’s high BABIP might set off some alarm bells (.347), it isn’t the main cause for concern. Rutledge’s high contact approach and good speed allowed him to post high in-play averages all throughout the minor leagues. More concerning for Rockies fans might be the company he keeps. The type of season where a player never walks, rarely strikes out, and still manages to hit for a little bit of power. The list, if we go back to single seasons since 2004, is pretty short. Only five players posted individual seasons (190 plate appearances or more) with a walk rate under 5%, a strikeout rate under 25%, an ISO over .200, and a ground ball rate over 45%.
Both Adam Jones and Ian Desmond are posting curiously terrific seasons, one player directly after a big payday with the other potentially ensuring his. Mark Trumbo hit a lot of home runs last year, featuring the kind of plus power that immediately disqualifies him from a Josh Rutledge comparison (plus he starting striking out like crazy here in 2012.)
Personal folk hero Rocco Baldelli had his best season as a big leaguer in 2006, posting a .302/.339/.533 line with 19 home runs in what was, ultimately, his final season with even a reasonable approximation of good health. Pedro Feliz was a glove-first third baseman who put up decent offensive numbers for a couple seasons before the power began seeping out of his game.
Ian Desmond might provide the best potential comparison Josh Rutledge. This year features a marked jump in home run per fly ball for Desmond, resulting in doubling his ISO over his two full seasons in the bigs.
Just as Nationals fans will spend their offseason pondering if this is “the real” Ian Desmond, Rockies fans are eager to find out what they have in Rutledge. With the return of Tulo and a chance to play everyday, Rutledge will have more than a few chances to spray line drives around the vast expanse of Coors Field.
In some ways, he might be the ideal type of player for their expansive field. Rather than a bomber trying to loft everything to the seats, use a shorter swing to target the considerable stretches of unmanned green space. At the very least, Josh Rutledge gives the Rockies something to wish on after a dismal 2012 campaign. Just don’t mention Ian Stewart while they do it. That wound is all too fresh.