Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Josh Rutledge.
The Question: What does Josh Rutledge bring to the table?
The Red Sox don’t have a big history in the Rule 5 draft. They’ve made a handful of selections over the last 15-20 years, but most of them were either traded or returned. In fact, the only player they’ve drafted and kept was Miguel Gonzalez in 2008. He had a knee injury when he was selected and eventually received Tommy John surgery before playing a game for Boston. He was released in 2011, still having never played for the team.
This past winter, they picked Josh Rutledge in one of the strangest Rule 5 picks in recent memory. Generally speaking, these picks are usually career Triple-A or even Double-A players who have some talent but not enough to ever get their chance. Rutledge not only has a few years of major-league experience, but he was also with the Red Sox for the past couple of seasons before hitting minor-league free agency this season. As strange as it was, he’s here now and will have to stay on the 25-man roster to stay with the organization. To do so, he’ll have to bring something to the table. I’m just not entirely sure what that is.
Before we look at who Rutledge is as a player, let’s take a quick look at what he’s done in the majors. Over the last four years, the soon-to-be 28-year-old has accrued 1088 plate appearances, most of which came for the Rockies. In that time, he’s hit .262/.312/.397 with an 80 wRC+. That’s not great, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s come in sporadic playing time. It’s been particularly spotty since coming to the Red Sox, where he’s gotten 85 and 56 plate appearances in his two seasons, respectively. Let’s look at his game and see what exactly was so enticing for the Red Sox that they selected him with their Rule 5 pick.
We’ll start with the plate discipline, because why not. This is not a strong suit in Rutledge’s game. Over his career, he’s walked just under six percent of the time — not great! — and has struck out just over 22 percent of the time. The strikeouts aren’t terrible, and the rate was actually better than average in his first two seasons. Since coming to Boston, though, he’s struck out 32 percent of the time, which is an awful rate. Of course, there are those pesky sample size issues. Either way, he’s never really shown the consistent ability to draw a walk (for what it’s worth, his walk rate in 2016 was 10.7 percent in 56 PAs), and he has some swing and miss in his game. Best case, he strikes out around a league-average rate and walks less often than the average hitter.
Moving on, power is most certainly not part of Rutledge’s game. This isn’t hugely important, of course, since he’s expected to play a utility infield role. Still, power never hurts and it doesn’t exist here. In his career, he has a .136 Isolated Power, which doesn’t sound too bad until you remember that 46 percent of his career plate appearances came at Coors Field. His true-talent power is likely lower than that career ISO would indicate.
What the Red Sox were most likely looking for when they added Rutledge to their roster was his defensive versatility. They don’t have a ton of infield depth in the upper-minors, and they could use a major leaguer behind Brock Holt. Over his career, Rutledge has played second base, third base and shortstop. Unfortunately, he’s never been very good at any of them. By both UZR and DRS, he’s well below average at each spot. Versatility is great, and you can live with subpar defense when you can play all over the diamond — it’s not like Brock Holt is great at the positions he plays the most — but a good glove is helpful when you don’t add much with the bat.
This post has been overwhelmingly negative, but there are two things that Rutledge does bring. The first is the ability to turn batted balls into hits. This has been a theme with Red Sox bench infielders lately — from Brock Holt to Marco Hernandez to Mauricio Dubon to Carlos Asuaje — and Rutledge fits the trend. Over his career he has a .326 batting average on balls in play. With the Red Sox, his BABIP has been .413. Now, the bad news. Obviously, his BABIP with Boston is unsustainable. Even before that, though, he played so often in Colorado. Not only does Coors help power, but it’s the best park for a batter’s BABIP in baseball by a wide margin, too. Rutledge hits enough line drives and hits it all over the field, so he should maintain a solid BABIP, but perhaps not as high as his career would suggest.
It’s also important to note that Rutledge is right handed, and the bench is in need of that kind of bat. Holt is fine, but he’s a lefty who struggles against lefties. Hernandez is Rutledge’s main competition for a roster spot, but he’s redundant with Holt as another lefty. With Pablo Sandoval a big question mark, particularly against left-handed pitching, a right-handed bat on the bench would go a long way. With that being said, Rutledge hasn’t really been any better against lefties, with a career 80 wRC+ against southpaws versus a 79 mark against righties.
In the end, I’m still unsure of what Rutledge adds to this roster. His contact abilities are nice, but not really spectacular. His right handedness is nice, but has never really shone through. Ultimately, I think the Red Sox are banking on the idea that his lack of consistent chances has held him back. Perhaps if he focuses on his defense, he can become passable there. Perhaps consistent plate appearances will stabilize his plate discipline. There’s no harm in giving it a shot, but I’d expect Hernandez to be filling this role by May at the latest.