Carlos Ruiz Walking the Walk

Can you guess who leads the Phillies in on-base percentage?

Yeah, it’s Chase Utley. Probably shouldn’t have made it that easy. How about who’s second behind Utley?

That would be Carlos Ruiz. That’s right: the #8 hitter, the catcher, has drawn 18 walks in 81 plate appearances. His OBP is just a shade behind Utley’s, .432 to .440. Utley leads the National League, but Ruiz is tied for fifth with the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier. Ruiz’s .432 OBP is 76 points higher than the current NL average of .356 for #8 hitters and 75 points higher than the .357 average for catchers.

Ruiz’s walk rate has increased every season since he came up to the Majors, from 6.4% in 2006 to 12.4% last year. Great numbers of course, but it’s highly unlikely that Ruiz will finish with a .400+ OBP given that he currently sports a .347 BABIP compared to a career average .266 and given that he is drawing walks at roughly 10% higher than his previous career high rate. Overall, though, this is a great sign from a player who had a 6.6% walk rate throughout his Minor League career.

Some of Ruiz’s non-intentional walks (16 of 18) are those “unintentional intentional walks” as he bats in front of a weak-hitting pitcher. 8 of his 18 walks have come in 22 plate appearances (36%) with two outs. 5 of his 18 walks have come in 13 plate appearances (38%) with two outs and runners in scoring position. There’s no doubt that Ruiz’s high walk rate is due to managers telling their pitchers to pitch around him to get to the pitcher.

Ruiz still has to draw the walks, though. Houston’s Humberto Quintero, also a catcher who hits eighth, has drawn exactly one walk in 33 PA in front of the pitcher. Washington’s Wil Nieves has drawn zero walks hitting eighth. Ruiz clearly understands the situation and accepts that the bat is being taken out of his hands, not unlike Barry Bonds circa 2002-04 (and thus concludes the only time you will ever see Ruiz compared to Bonds). As Phillies broadcaster Chris Wheeler will tell you, it’s good to get the pitcher out of the way with two outs in an inning so he isn’t leading off the next inning making an easy out.

The one thing we have not seen from Ruiz yet, perhaps as a result of not being able to swing as much, is power (this is where Ruiz and Bonds part ways). His .317 SLG is nearly 60 points lower than his career average and 108 points lower than it was last year. His isolated power (ISO = SLG – AVG) of .048 is eighth-worst in all of Major League Baseball. He has yet to hit a home run and his only extra-base hits are three doubles, just 18% of his total hits.

As pitchers realize that Ruiz and the Phillies are more than happy to take the free pass, Ruiz will start seeing more strikes to hit. He has seen only 58% of his pitches for strikes, counting swings (both whiff and contact).

For now, everyone in Philadelphia is ecstatic with Ruiz’s exceptional plate discipline and selflessness.  He can have all the ice cream he wants.

Ibanez’s Bat Is Slowing Down

Raul Ibanez’s struggles through the first month of the 2010 season are well-documented. He has an OBP of .330 and a measly SLG of .350. Through May 3 last year, Ibanez had a .424 OBP and .733 SLG. From the time the soon-to-be 38-year-old returned from his groin injury in the second week of July ’09 through the end of the season, Ibanez managed just a .323 OBP and .448 SLG, indicating that his struggles predate this season.

In particular, it appears that Ibanez has struggled with the fastball. After posting a run value of 0.98 per 100 fastballs last year (carried heavily by his MVP-caliber first half), that has shrunk to negative 1.63 runs per 100 fastballs. He’s seen about 220 fastballs already, so he has been about negative 3.3 runs overall.

He has only muscled nine fastballs into the outfield, four of which have dropped in for hits: two in right-center, one in shallow center, and one down the left-field line.

By taking a look at his spray chart from the start of last year until his injury, we can see where a healthy and effective Ibanez typically hits the baseball.

The left-handed Ibanez mostly peppered left-center. That indicates that he was seeing the ball well and squaring it up properly and not swinging as a preemptive tactic against the fastball. Additionally, since he is not swinging preemptively and the fastball is traveling deeper in the strike zone, it indicates that Ibanez has enough bat speed to catch up to the fastball.

The following image shows his batted balls from the time he returned last year through yesterday.

He’s all over the place. More of his batted balls went from left-center towards the left field line. That indicates a slower bat. It also appears that he started pulling more balls down the right field line, perhaps a sign that he is swinging earlier to make up for a lack of bat speed.

It is not indicated on the graph, but the post-injury Ibanez has hit more than four percent more foul balls on fastballs than pre-injury Ibanez, 18.2% to 13.9%.

All of this could also be just one long cold streak. As David Cohen wrote at The Good Phight last year:

In the 36 games ending July 28, 2007, while Ibanez was playing for the Mariners, he hit .178/.228/.296 for a .524 OPS.  And yet, by the end of that year, he was on fire once again — hitting .366/.432/.655 for a 1.087 OPS with 11 home runs and 30 RBI — for the 36 games ending September 9.

He did this in Kansas City as well.  For the 36 games ending May 15, 2002, Ibanez was atrocious — .193/.224/.330 for a .554 OPS.  He hit 1 home run and had only 14 RBI.  This cold streak was sandwiched by two of Ibanez’s hottest streaks in his career, which I discussed earlier this year — his 36 games ending August 11, 2001 (.358/.475/.663 for a 1.138 OPS) and his 36 games ending July 19, 2002 (.364/.422/.803(!!) for a 1.225 OPS).

Whether it’s due to a random streak, mechanical problems, injury, or simply age, it is evident that Ibanez is having a lot of problems catching up to fastballs. While the Phillies have the National League’s second-best offense, if Ibanez can master the fastball again, the team would be less likely to go on cold streaks as they did April 17-27 when they averaged a meager three runs per game.

Thanks to Texas Leaguers for the great Pitch F/X spray charts.