LOS ANGELES – It’s ironic that one of the knocks against Blake Rutherford is that he’s already 19 years old. For much of his youth, he was playing against kids older than him, not younger.
The Chaminade Prep (Los Angeles) outfielder started playing baseball when he was three, playing up alongside four- and five-year-olds.
“Even if I did nothing in the game, I would roll around in the dirt,” he said. “It was all about having fun back then. They said I did good, but all I remember is every picture had to do with dirt.”
Baseball may have been fun and games back then, but it’s been serious business for Rutherford for several years now. The 6-3, 200-pound outfielder has a chance to be drafted high in the first round of Major League Baseball amateur draft Thursday.
If he does, he can say he earned it.
He may be a behemoth now, but it wasn’t always that way. His older brother Cole, a 22-year-old redshirt junior first baseman at Cornell, has seen Rutherford grow over the years. A diminutive infielder in Little League morphed into a five-tool outfielder with a wide receiver’s body.
What remained was the little guy work ethic.
“He was nowhere near the player that he is now,” Cole Rutherford said. “He had to work real hard for every advantage.”
Rutherford began putting serious work toward his baseball future entering his sophomore year at Chaminade. It was then that he started training with Ryan Sorensen at Proactive Sports Performance, located about halfway between L.A. and Oxnard, Calif. Sorensen had worked with other baseball stars like Nick Swisher and Christian Yelich.
In the offseasons, Rutherford spent about six hours a week at Proactive. Three days a week he’d work on his strength, explosiveness and flexibility. The other two he’d work on speed and recovery. He’d later add some yoga and cryotherapy although the benefits of the latter are scientifically up for debate
Each session lasted an hour, but Rutherford would often come early and stay late. Sorensen estimates Rutherford added about 30 pounds of muscle by his senior year.
“From the get-go, he’s come to me and really worked his tail off,” Sorensen said. “He’s had a purpose of what he needs to accomplish while he’s there.”
Rutherford’s also worked on his defense. He maintains he’s a center fielder despite some disagreement among baseball evaluators and has made sure to give himself the best chance to stick there.
He’s received private instruction from San Diego Padres outfield coach Tarrik Brock, whose eldest son was a three-sport athlete for Chaminade. Brock taught Rutherford the geometry necessary to understand the right angles to take, and drilled him on fundamentals of his first step. He also helped Rutherford learn to continue to pump his arms as he runs – instead of holding one or both stiff – to better his closing speed.
“I think he can play center field for as long as he wants to or whatever the need of the team may be,” Brock said.
Just about the only thing Rutherford hasn’t taken private instruction on recently is his swing, which also happens to be his busiest asset. He credits coaches at the California Baseball Academy with molding his mechanics and approach, but Rutherford hasn’t had a private swing coach in a few years.
Nonetheless, he displays what many consider to be an advanced approach at the plate. He uses the whole field and stays back as he awaits the ball, eschewing any sort of leg kick. When he’s more aggressive, he’ll use a toe-tap to get his timing. But that disappears when he’s at two strikes and trying to cover the whole strike zone.
Rutherford’s definition of “advanced approach” is a simple one.
“It just means getting my pitch when I hit,” he said. “Even if it’s a strike, I’m going to take it if it’s not a pitch I’m going to drive, until it gets to two strikes.”
Rutherford hit .577 with 13 doubles and four home runs as a senior, but his best performances have come on the biggest stages. He twice played for Team USA’s 18-and-under team, hitting .286 as a rising junior and .304 last summer. That year, he helped secure a gold medal with a timely three-run homer against South Korea.
He also led Chaminade to a championship win at the National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., this past spring, hitting .643 during the tournament.
“I had the ability to stay calm and cool in all situations,” he said. “No matter how many people in the stands, I just focus on playing baseball and having fun, because that’s what I’m here for.”
For his brother, Rutherford’s most impressive performance came in one of his final games as a prep player Chaminade. It was also the most instructive in terms of his draft stock.
Cole Rutherford remembers his brother smoking two balls, stealing a couple bags, reaching a ball in center that most would have missed and throwing a runner out at home.
“That’s hitting for contact, hitting for power, his speed on the bases, speed on defense and with his arm on defense,” Cole Rutherford said.
If annoys Rutherford that his age is perceived as a dent in his armor. He points out he only recently turned 19, but also figures he must be doing something right if that’s the biggest knock against him.
It’s not a disadvantage he’ll face for long. He’s committed to UCLA to play college baseball, and being 19 now means he can again be eligible for the draft after two years with the Bruins instead of three. He won’t say what would have to happen to pry him away from the Bruins, but some think he’ll need to be taken in the first five picks.
“There’s definitely a chance I still end up at UCLA,” he said. “I love UCLA. My family is a big education-first, big school-first family.”