By Todd Johnson
A year ago, I wrote a profile of Michael Rucker shortly after his first full month as a starter in the Carolina League for Myrtle Beach. Previously, Rucker was a shutdown reliever for South Bend before getting promoted to the Pelicans. Rucker went on to make 15 starts in Myrtle Beach and put up 82 innings in that role for Myrtle Beach with a 2.52 ERA to become the breakout pitcher in the second half of the year in the Cub system.
Here is what Fangraphs said of Rucker heading into 2018:
Rucker has terrific command — especially to his glove side — of a deceptively hard fastball that will creep into the mid-90s, and he mixes in two slurvy breaking balls and a moving changeup, all of which are fringe to average. He largely lives off of his fastball and his deceptive, slingy delivery, but he pitched well in long relief and got a look as a starter mid-year.
Now at AA Tennessee for 2018, the 11th round pick in 2016 out of BYU is having a very good season starting for the Smokies. His stats are a little misleading. Once you start digging into them, you can see how good Rucker has been on the mound. And, you can also see that he’s just beginning. Yes, he has some things to work on, but he has built himself a nice AA foundation to add more to his pitching resume.
Rucker has been pretty consistent this year when it comes to how much action he gets in every start. He averages 84.63 pitches per start while getting in 5.21 innings per start. His shortest start of the year was 4.2 innings while his longest was only 6.
2. Strike Percentage of Pitches Thrown
Michael averages over 1 K per inning with 43 Ks in 41.1 innings. Of his 667 pitches thrown this year, he has 438 strikes or 65.7%. For South Bend, he was 66% in 2017. At Myrtle Beach last year, he came in at 67.3%. Those are all good numbers, but his walks this year have increased to just over 3 BBs per nine innings.
3. Batting Average Against
In April, hitters barely hit him with a .216 average. In May, that dropped down to .193. That 23 point difference explains the varying levels of success he’s had this year.
4. Earned Run Average
For the year, he’s posted a 4.16 ERA. However a 2.86 ERA in May is more indicative of his work across 41.2 innings this year. On April 20 in Montgomery, Rucker was charged with 6 earned runs in the fifth inning where he only got 2 outs before being lifted. Take away that 2/3 of an inning outing and his ERA drops from 4.10 on the season down to 2.85.
For the future, the Cubs are developing a new breed of pitchers that I like to call “utility pitchers.” That type of arm can throw in a variety of roles from starter to long reliever, short inning, and setup. Mike Montgomery fits that bill at the major league level while Rucker does in the minors along with Duncan Robinson, Bailey Clark, and Rollie Lacy. For now, though, Rucker should be starting and throwing as many pitches as he can to strengthen his arm and work on his pitches.
In the short term, I’d like to see him continue in June on the same consistent path he has set forth in May. He could be promoted to Iowa in late June or early July, depending on his performance. The only things he should be working on are these items:
1. Increase strike percentage closer to 70%.
2. Decrease walk and home run rates. As of today, his walk rate is 3 per 9 innings. He can get that a lot lower and it will only benefit him. His HR rate needs to be below 1 per game.
3. Increase his workload to over 90 pitches per start and to get into the 7th inning on a regular basis.
I don’t know what his role is for the future, but for now, he should be starting at AA and getting closer and closer to Iowa.