The top six National League OPS leaders are as follows: 2011 NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, a rebounded David Wright, upstart 29-year-old Bryan LaHair, 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, 2010 NL MVP winner Joey Votto, and six-time All-Star Carlos Beltran. Certainly an esteemed list and, with the exception of LaHair, all are names one would expect to see on such a list. If you go one place further down on the list, you find Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, hitting .355/.404/.595. Now that's unexpected.
The Phillies signed Carlos Ruiz as an amateur free agent out of Panama all the way back in 1998 for $8,000, which was and still is chump change, relatively speaking. Ruiz played second base and pitched as an amateur, but to keep his baseball dream alive, he became a catcher. Ruiz did not blaze his way through the Phillies' minor league system. In his age 21-24 years between rookie ball and Double-A, he never posted an OPS above .700. He was not well-regarded as a prospect, completely absent from Baseball America's top prospect rankings. In his age-25 season at Reading, Ruiz started to make huge strides, hitting 17 home runs, more than he had hit in his entire professional career. He kept it going in 2005 and '06, eventually earning a promotion to the majors.
After the 2006 season, the Phillies had a changing of the guard as an old, injury-prone Mike Lieberthal was let go. Ruiz, with all of 78 plate appearances entering the '07 season, was installed as the starting catcher. Although he showed steady improvement late in his minor league career, there were plenty of skeptics who thought his bat wouldn't hold up against the best pitching in the world, and that prospect Jason Jaramillo was the Phillies' catcher of the future.
Ruiz paid no mind to the naysayers. He posted a .735 OPS in his first full season. Given the powerhouse offense the Phillies had constructed in 2007, that was more than enough from their catcher and No. 8 hitter. What impressed the Phillies the most was his ability to call games and handle the pitching staff. Every pitcher that passed through Philadelphia quickly developed a rapport with Ruiz, whether it was Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers or even Cole Hamels.
Of course, as the Phillies later acquired aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, they too grew to trust Ruiz. In fact, when Halladay tossed his perfect game against the Florida Marlins in May 2010, he credited his catcher for the success. Halladay said, "I can't say enough about the job that Ruiz did tonight, really. I felt like he was calling a great game up until the fourth or fifth, and at that point, I just felt like I'd let him take over and go with him. He did a great job. Like I said, it was kind of a no-brainer for me. I'd just go out, see the glove and hit it." Halladay shook Ruiz off just once the entire game.
Ruiz also developed behind the plate defensively. According to Matt Klaassen's catcher defense ratings, Ruiz ranked third in the majors in 2010, fifth in 2011 and third through April this season. In particular, he saved a lot of potential headaches for Phillies pitchers by being among the best at blocking pitches in the dirt. In 2008, for example, when Brad Lidge converted all 48 of his save opportunities, he made heavy use of his slider in the dirt, trusting that Ruiz would sacrifice his body to keep the ball in front of him. If not for Ruiz's great defense, Lidge never would have had a perfect season and certainly wouldn't have been able to help lead the Phillies to their World Series championship that year.
That is the evolution of Ruiz. Or, at least, that's where everyone thought he would stop evolving. Although he had a very good offensive season in 2010 (.847 OPS), Saberists correctly predicted a regression in 2011 because so much of his success was dependent on an unsustainable BABIP. He was an average bat with above-average defensive skills and off-the-chart intangibles -- an enviable set of traits.
Ruiz entered 2012 at 33 years old, an age when most players have long since stopped improving. He could be counted on to hit at about the league average with decent on-base skills and not all that much in the power department. With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out for most of the first half, the Phillies pinned their offensive hopes on outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.
Entering Monday night, Ruiz had the second-highest WAR (FanGraphs) among all catchers, just a hair behind A.J. Ellis (2.1 to 2.0) and ahead of household names like Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, Buster Posey and Brian McCann. And it is on Ruiz's back that the Phillies have withstood the loss of their two best hitters and stand at 21-21 through the first quarter of the season.
Ruiz has seven home runs on the season. In previous years, he took until August to get to seven homers or never reached it at all. As I noted in a recent blog post, Ruiz made a simple mechanical adjustment after the 2011 season, and it has paid off exponentially. All he did was shrink his leg kick, which allows him to both better time pitches and get himself in a better hitting position by the time the ball reaches the plate. Ruiz did not have great plate coverage in previous years, but he is completely crushing pitches on the outer edge of the plate, hitting them into the gap or over the fence.
Is Ruiz going to finish the year with a .355 average and a .999 OPS? Probably not. However, it is not inconceivable that he continues being productive at the plate and finds himself in the MVP discussion. Ruiz has been the one constant in the Phillies' lineup and certainly been the team MVP to date. The Phillies certainly never expected to have such a complete player when they signed the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Panamanian 14 years ago.
Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley.