Jackson Rutledge, a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher, overpowered opposing hitters at the junior college level this spring. He’s emerged as the top junior college MLB draft prospect since Bryce Harper in 2010 and one of the best pitching prospects in at least two decades.
When this year’s draft begins June 3, Rutledge could become the highest drafted junior college pitcher this century. Phil Bickford owns that distinction after the San Francisco Giants selected him 18th overall in 2015.
“It would be awesome. I am kind of representing all the JUCO guys right now and representing how hard they work,” Rutledge said. “I think the JUCO route doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. I get to promote that a little more now.”
After an uneven freshman season at Arkansas, Rutledge transferred to San Jacinto Junior College in Texas for his sophomore season. He entered the spring as a potential first-round pick. But after an impressive season, Rutledge has solidified himself as a first-round selection and even potential a top-10 pick.
In March, Rutledge told the Baseball Prospect Journal “it’s been my goal to play professional baseball” and that his “first priority is getting to pro ball this year.”
Since his season ended May 5, Rutledge has thrown for a “couple” of major league teams in preparation for the draft, he said.
“It’s really exciting. I’m still trying to focus on lifting and getting ready for the pro season or whatever I do,” said Rutledge, a Kentucky commit. “I think in a few more days it’ll get a little more crazy, and we will see how that goes.”
Rutledge, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound right-hander, has a five-pitch mix, featuring a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. He throws from a three-quarters arm slot with his fastballs sitting in the high-90s.
He added an 86-89 mph slider to his repertoire last summer because he thought it complemented his other pitches well, he said. He generates an impressive spin rate with the pitch and it has developed into his best secondary offering.
His low-80s curveball also has become an above-average offering and features devastating break.
His advanced repertoire allowed him to post a 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts and 30 walks allowed in 82 2/3 innings. He allowed just eight earned runs and one home run in 13 starts this spring.
“The consistency was the biggest thing I grew at because my year at Arkansas was a bit up and down,” Rutledge said. “I think this year I really built routines and managed my workouts and throwing to the point that I could go out and compete every game and not have ups and downs.”
Rutledge wanted to refine his secondary pitches and limit the amount of noncompetitive pitches he threw this spring. He believes he made positive progress in both those areas.
“I think I was pretty good for the most part,” he said. “I think there was quite a few that I still need to improve. I think there’s a lot of room to get better at. I think it was a good year for that, and I hope to continue that and get better.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for four years. He’s interviewed 133 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.