Does the Future Include Carlos Ruiz?

Elite catchers are hard to come by these days. Teams that manage to find one hold on to them for dear life, as the Minnesota Twins did with Joe Mauer, the St. Louis Cardinals with Yadier Molina, and the San Francisco Giants will with Buster Posey. The Phillies have one of their own in Carlos Ruiz and yesterday chose to pick up his $5 million club option for 2013, meaning that he could potentially be playing out his final year in Philadelphia.

According to FanGraphs, Ruiz was the third-most valuable catcher in baseball at 5.5 WAR. Baseball Reference was less flattering, putting him at 4.4, but still in third place. Going by offense only, Ruiz had the second-highest wOBA at .398, just a hair behind Posey and well ahead of Mauer in third place. It was quite clearly a career year as Ruiz hurdled his previous career-high in isolated power, finishing at .215. For the offensively-lacking Phillies, Ruiz was their backbone for most of the year until he succumbed to plantar fasciitis. Among Phillies with at least 300 trips to the plate, Ruiz was by far the most productive. Utley, with his .342 wOBA, was the second-most productive hitter, a far cry.

Ruiz has become an integral part of the roster, but where does he fit in for the future? He turns 34 in January and will be 35 if the Phillies choose to bring him back after next season. Expectations for the Panamanian should be centered around 2009 or 2011 levels, not 2012 levels. But even so, 35-year-old catchers rarely put up above-average offensive numbers. Since 1950, only six catchers have qualified for the batting title and posted an adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 100 (average) or better:

Player OPS+ Year Age Tm
Elston Howard 127 1964 35 NYY
Carlton Fisk 134 1983 35 CHW
Carlton Fisk 115 1985 37 CHW
Carlton Fisk 103 1987 39 CHW
Carlton Fisk 134 1990 42 CHW
Benito Santiago 103 2002 37 SFG
Jason Varitek 103 2007 35 BOS
Jorge Posada 153 2007 35 NYY
A.J. Pierzynski 118 2012 35 CHW
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/30/2012.

Even if you clamp the range down to 1991-2012, only four catchers qualify — an average of one every five years. There may be a few reasons for this. My hypotheses include:

  • Older catchers tend to get injured more often
  • Older catchers are on the decline, thus are not given enough playing time to qualify for the batting title
  • Older catchers retire earlier, or shift positions

The Phillies saw the rise and fall of a homegrown catcher in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in Mike Lieberthal. His last full season was in 2004 at the age of 32. He took 529 trips to the plate. At 33, he logged 443 PA, then followed it up with just 230 in 2006. The Phillies finally parted ways with Lieby, and he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for his final season at 35.

Even when they are able to stay on the field, catchers in their mid- and late-30’s just haven’t been all that productive. The following list shows all catchers 34 years old or older that logged at least 200 plate appearances and started 75 percent of their games at catcher since 2010.

Player OPS+ PA Year Age Tm
A.J. Pierzynski 118 520 2012 35 CHW
Ramon Hernandez 113 328 2011 35 CIN
Ramon Hernandez 112 352 2010 34 CIN
Rod Barajas 97 337 2011 35 LAD
A.J. Pierzynski 97 500 2011 34 CHW
Rod Barajas 97 339 2010 34 TOT
Jason Varitek 92 250 2011 39 BOS
Jose Molina 80 274 2012 37 TBR
Rod Barajas 75 361 2012 36 PIT
Matt Treanor 75 242 2011 35 TOT
Ivan Rodriguez 73 421 2010 38 WSN
Jason Kendall 71 490 2010 36 KCR
Bengie Molina 68 416 2010 35 TOT
Matt Treanor 57 272 2010 34 TEX
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/30/2012.

The curve is skewed very much to the left in terms of OPS+. While there are three within 20 points to the right and four within 20 points to the left of 100, there are seven others further left than that. If you’re a betting man, the odds are higher that Ruiz goes the way of Matt Treanor rather than Ramon Hernandez.

This doesn’t mean that the Phillies should just kick Chooch to the curb after 2013. It just means that they shouldn’t rush to sign Ruiz to a multi-year extension because he has been so good in recent years. Six catchers have been signed to a multi-year contract in the last two years:

  • Victor Martinez, DET (4/$50M): 131 OPS+ in 2011 (age 31), missed all of 2012 due to injury
  • John Buck, MIA (3/$18M): 87 OPS+ in 2011 (age 30), 75 OPS+ in 2012
  • Miguel Olivo, SEA (2/$7M): 81 OPS+ in 2011 (age 32), 75 OPS+ in 2012
  • A.J. Pierzynski, CHW (2/$8M): 94 OPS+ in 2011 (age 34), 118 OPS+ in 2012
  • Yorvit Torrealba, TEX (2/$6.25M): 86 OPS+ in 2011 (age 32), released in August 2012 with a 69 OPS+
  • Ramon Hernandez, COL (2/$6.4M): 49 OPS+ in 2012 (age 36)

Of the six, only Pierzynski has been a good value. The rest declined or suffered an injury. If the Phillies are interested in having Carlos Ruiz around for just a little while longer, it should be on a year-by-year basis. Doing so would also allow them to bring along prospects Tommy Joseph, Sebastian Valle, and Cameron Rupp at a more comfortable pace. While Ruiz has gone far above and beyond anything we could have ever hoped for when he made his Major League debut in 2006, the Phillies have to be prepared to turn the page if necessary after the 2013 season.