The making of an All-Star catcher

Editor's note: This story is available in Spanish here.

On the first day of Carlos Ruiz's career, he marveled at how much smaller he was than most players. He had arrived at the Philadelphia Phillies' complex in the Dominican Republic in 1998 as perhaps the most unheralded player in the organization.

Ruiz had signed for a measly $8,000, which meant he was picked up on a lark because he was converting from a second baseman into a catcher, a position he had never played. To even get to the Dominican, Ruiz had to convince his beloved mother, Inocencia, a schoolteacher, that the trip was worthwhile because on the surface it seemed pointless.

Ruiz, then 19, was dropping out of college, where he was working toward a degree in physical education, to chase a dream. There could not have been a player in the organization with worse odds of reaching the majors.

But dreams exist for a reason, to entice one to reach for the unattainable, to strive for the impossible. So off went Ruiz, the unlikely Panamanian professional baseball player (only seven were on Opening Day rosters this year), to a foreign land. The cultural adjustments Ruiz would have to make in the Dominican were massive: different foods, different dialects, different people, different culture. It would be an entirely different life.

The competition would be fierce. Ruiz's Dominican teammates were faster, taller, stronger and carried a spectacular bravado while he was short, thick and timid. Yet Ruiz -- listed at 5-foot-10 but likely closer to 5-foot-8 -- was determined to show all those bigger players that he was as good as any of them.

When the team lined up together for the first meeting, Ruiz appeared almost as a child even though he was older than most of the other players. For certain, not many there on that first day would ever think that the quiet Ruiz, who hardly spoke a word on that first day, would ever make it out of the academy, much less make it to the majors.

He would prove all of them wrong.

The first day of Ruiz's professional career bears remembering again and again to truly understand how unlikely his career has been.

By any variety of measures, old-school (batting average) or new-school (wins above replacement), Ruiz is the best statistical catcher in baseball this year. At a time when the position is floundering offensively -- last year catchers had the worst OPS of any position -- Ruiz's statistics (.340/.404/.566 at midweek) make him a top-10 player in most statistical categories. When the catching position has evolved into one played by sleek, tall athletes like Buster Posey and Matt Wieters, the pudgy, stocky Ruiz has become the benchmark.

"It's remarkable what he's done," says Kansas City Royals executive Mike Arbuckle, previously the longtime minor league coordinator in Philadelphia.

Arbuckle estimates that every year, teams pick about two players to convert to catcher, yet many of them had previously played the position at some point in their youth. It's almost a miracle when any of those converts reaches the majors in any role.

For Ruiz to become an All-Star, the Phillies had to build a catcher from scratch. It would be a lengthy and difficult process that would require Ruiz to put in countless hours, and he still might not make it. The risk and investment was minimal for the Phillies. If it didn't work out, they would try to find another gem the next year with another pair of converts. But Ruiz had put his entire future on what seemed to be a monumental gamble.

"You know, on that first day, I really enjoyed playing the position," Ruiz remembers. "It was something that I think was destiny. Things in life happen that way."

Twice before 1998, the Phillies had turned down the opportunity to sign Ruiz, once as a pitcher, the other time as a second baseman. Panamanian scout Allan Lewis attempted for a third time when Sal Agostinelli joined the organization in 1998 as the international scouting director.

Although Agostinelli did not see Ruiz as a prospect when he worked him out, Lewis suggested that perhaps they try him at catcher. After a few drills, Ruiz showed enough physical skills behind the plate to suggest he might adapt to the position. He was signed for $8,000 and assigned to the Dominican.

Ruiz survived life in the Dominican by picking up the basics of catching and by showing a capable bat.

On the first day of his professional career in the Dominican, Ruiz couldn't even catch a popup. During one of the early drills on that first day, a coach hit soaring popups into the bright Caribbean sky. Ruiz spun around and fell backward, and the ball ended up on the ground.

The ball had seemed so impossible for Ruiz to spot. It had appeared to bend in directions he had never seen. As an infielder, he could easily read the spin on the ball. But when it came from such an awkward angle, Ruiz was lost. It was easy to be discouraged because the task seemed so impossible.

It was something that I think was destiny. Things in life happen that way.

-- Ruiz on becoming a catcher

But for the next several weeks, Ruiz focused on those popups until he could consistently catch them.

After two seasons in the Dominican, he put himself in a position to play his first year in the United States, although he was still unknown to most front-office officials.

In the spring of 2000, newly appointed minor league catching coordinator Mick Billmeyer arrived in Clearwater, Fla., to work with the Phillies' young group of catchers in extended spring training. He knew very little about Ruiz. He had little reason to do so.

There were no specific instructions that Billmeyer was to exclusively work with Ruiz. He was just another catcher. Maybe even less than that. There were many other priorities.

During the first team meeting, Billmeyer immediately took note of the Latino catcher who did not say a word. He approached Ruiz and realized that the young backstop hardly spoke English. This was going to be a challenge but one that Billmeyer eagerly took on. Perhaps as part of the dedication to his job, perhaps because Ruiz, despite not saying much, seemed to pay close attention to every word he said, Billmeyer became intrigued with the Panamanian kid.

To measure Ruiz's abilities, Billmeyer asked Ruiz to get into a crouch.

"Are you ready?" Billmeyer asked. Ruiz nodded.

Billmeyer nudged Ruiz on his head, and he fell onto his back.

"No balance," Billmeyer told him, pronouncing the words in Spanish.

It was a monumental moment. Ruiz learned not only that he had much to learn but also that there were people willing to work with him. Both laughed at Billmeyer's attempt to speak Spanish, but it was a bonding moment. The coach showed he was willing to speak to Ruiz in his language.

After Ruiz got up from his fall, Billmeyer got into a crouch and showed Ruiz that his knees needed to be pointed toward second base and shortstop and not toward the sky. That would give him the balance he would need to move ably behind the plate.

Billmeyer and Ruiz developed an unlikely friendship. To better understand the world through Ruiz's eyes, Billmeyer attended Ruiz's English classes. During off times, Billmeyer attempted to learn Spanish. Billmeyer would try out his Spanish during drills.

"I'd go out there and speak in broken Spanish and tell him to get it together," Billmeyer said. "I wouldn't want to take anyone with me because I wanted to show him that I could do it."

In broken Spanish, Billmeyer taught Ruiz how to properly throw to second base. At first, Ruiz wanted to just throw with all his might, regardless of the mechanics. Often that approach would injure his elbow and he'd have to sit for several days.

"It took about a year to two years to convince him that a shorter arm stroke timed with the rest of his feet and body would be just as strong and quicker," Billmeyer said.

By 2004, Ruiz was slated to enter the season as the Phillies' Double-A backup catcher. Billmeyer had moved on to become the Phils' major league catching instructor, so Ruiz began to work with new minor league catching coordinator Mike Compton.

Ruiz was still raw, but he had certainly taken to Billmeyer's instruction. All that work had dramatically improved his throwing. His balance had gotten better, and that made him adept at blocking pitches. But there was still plenty of work to be done.

Much like Billmeyer had taken to Ruiz, soon Compton fell in love with working with Ruiz. There was no other catcher in the system who seemed to enjoy learning about catching more than he did.

Although Billmeyer's instruction was based in fundamentals, Compton provided the perfect theoretical complement. He taught Ruiz about the three basic catcher stances: the small stance, which is the relaxed crouch when catchers handle bullpens or situations with nobody on base; the action stance, in which catchers with men on base must be ready to block balls in the dirt; and perhaps most important, the natural stance, the position where catchers have to position themselves optimally to get the benefit of the doubt from umpires on strike calls.

Compton also would challenge catchers by having them catch high-velocity pitches -- usually at 100 mph -- from a machine that was placed only 20 feet from them. The catchers would strap protective gear on their arms to avoid shattering their wrists.
"I would armor them up like an English knight," Compton said.

The aim was to slow the game down so that when they caught in a game, the ball would appear to be coming at them much slower than when it arrived from the machine. Other tricks, such as having Ruiz catch while on a crouching beam, were designed to help with balance. Ruiz took easily to instruction.

There also had been questions about Ruiz's durability. He had often gotten hurt on plate collisions, and his throwing elbow always seemed to be sore. But he soon learned how to position himself better on plays at the plate and his throwing form improved.

At midseason in 2004, Russ Jacobson, a highly regarded first-round pick who was ahead of Ruiz on the depth chart at Double-A, got hurt, making Ruiz the starter.
Ruiz finished the 2004 season with an .822 OPS. His defense had improved significantly, and he surpassed the better-regarded Jacobson and finally caught the attention of the front office. For the first time, Ruiz was a bona fide prospect. All he had to do was improve his pitch-calling abilities.

It would not be easy. Ruiz was limited by his inability to master English. The timidity he had often shown in meetings also would show up on the mound. He would call a pitch, and if a pitcher shook him off, Ruiz would immediately call another pitch. He had no confidence to force the pitcher to throw the pitch he had called. Pitchers had little confidence in him.

Ruiz was lucky enough to have former catcher John Russell as his manager at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Russell and pitching coach Rod Nichols worked with Ruiz to develop a game plan before each game. Whenever any of Philadelphia's minor league roving pitching instructors were at the game, they would work with Ruiz between innings to discuss what had gone right and what had gone wrong with certain hitters.

Ruiz also took it upon himself to study as much as he could about hitters. By that level, teams had scouting reports on players, and Ruiz pored through them. Ruiz began to learn about which situations require certain strategies. He began to see things on the field. He saw the adjustments hitters were making, and he began to call pitches to counteract them.

"It was like when one goes to school," Ruiz said. "When one goes to school, you don't have any idea of what you're going to learn. But as each day passes, you learn things. I believe sport is the same way. Some guys are born with a talent. But you have to nurture that talent and continue to learn. Life is like school. You aren't going to be born knowing what to do in every situation. You learn little by little."

The school comparison was apt. The son of a schoolteacher knew very well the importance of study time. According to Ruiz, as a boy, he was not allowed to play baseball unless his grades were top-notch. Several times Ruiz sat in his home sobbing because he had flunked a class. Teammates and coaches would come to his house and beg Inocencia to allow him to play because he was one of the best players, but she would not relent. Her boy had to be a good student.

When it came time to learn about hitters instead of learning about fractions, Ruiz was well prepared. When it came time to learn English, Ruiz was ready to put in the work. Eventually, Ruiz was able to communicate better with pitchers in their language. When that came, his confidence to call pitches drastically improved, and pitchers gained trust in him.

"The education that my mother gave helped me tremendously," Ruiz said. "All the things that I had to learn all were a bit easier because I had that background. There were so many things that I had to be aware of, there were so many baseball classes that I had to take, and without a doubt, my education from my mother played a big part."

Once he had the confidence to control the pace of the game with his pitch calling, Ruiz's natural leadership skills flourished. As a boy, Ruiz, who had chosen to play with baseballs instead of toy cars even as a toddler, was always the one in his neighborhood to organize pickup baseball games. It was he who brought the balls and bats, and it was he who picked the teams and ordered everyone to their positions.

He had an acute understanding of the game. Ruiz was made to lead, and playing catcher eventually suited him perfectly.

"I was always taught that a catcher has to be the brains of the team," Ruiz said. "You can't let things outside of your defensive duties affect what you do because it will affect the team. You have to always maintain that same enthusiasm. I won't tell you that I've never been discouraged. Of course I have; as a human being that's bound to happen. But you have to surpass those moments quickly to help the team."

Even as the Phillies have floundered this year, Ruiz has produced his best season at age 33. Partly because of a slew of injuries, he's hit cleanup this season, although his numbers suggest Philadelphia has not suffered one bit by having him in that spot.

Although he did not reach the majors until age 27 in 2006 and didn't become the full-time starter until the next year, Ruiz has accumulated an impressive career in Philadelphia. He's a World Series champion, has caught two no-hitters thrown by Roy Halladay, and this year became a first-time All-Star.

Since 2009, only two other full-time catchers (Joe Mauer and Mike Napoli) have a higher OPS than Ruiz, and neither of those two are regarded as good defensively. Arguably, Ruiz has been the best catcher in baseball for almost three years.

Ruiz is beloved by his teammates, and fans adore him and love to call him by his nickname: "Chooch."

"He'll go down as one of the all-time favorite Phillies," Billmeyer said.

It wasn't easy for Ruiz to foresee his star future. But he pushed himself to reach that point.

"All of these people will see the type of player I am," he would tell himself during those early struggles in his first year. "Maybe they won't see it right away as a catcher because it's so new to me, but the whole team will see my dedication and my love of the game."

Fourteen years later, the entire baseball world has seen what type of player Carlos Ruiz has become.