It’s sort of arbitrary, but I always figured mid-2009 for the time when Carlos Ruiz turned it around at the (side of the) plate. Through games played on July 19th of that year, Ruiz had posted a .688 OPS, following a rough 2008 season (in which he nevertheless provided some choppy World Series heroics). That doesn’t sound too bad, I know, but this is 2009, when the league as a whole was still hitting baseballs.
From the next day on, Ruiz hit .290/.382/.510 and finished with the first league average or better offensive season of his career. Over the following seasons it became clear what a bargain the Phillies had struck. Ruiz was already known for winning the trust and confidence of nearly every pitcher to pass through the Phillies clubhouse, and now he was a reliable threat to manufacture a solid at bat, getting on base more often than his positional peers and more often than most, if not all, of his teammates. On a team with a rapidly escalating payroll, Ruiz never made more than $5 million dollars annually from 2010 to 2013.
In 2012, Ruiz ditched the high walk rate and lengthy at-bats, suddenly discovering a taste for contact. Only five hitters with 400 or more plate appearances that season had a higher wRC+ than Ruiz’s 151: Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun, Buster Posey, and Joey Votto — quite a bit of good company. Had Ruiz not missed almost all of August with plantar fasciitis, he may have received more than the token number of MVP votes that he did.
Nobody could reasonably expect Ruiz to repeat his 2012, particularly with the late start he would get due to his 25 game suspension for a positive amphetamine test. But even the most tempered of expectations turned out to be too high. In addition to the first 25 games of the season, Ruiz missed 27 games from late May to early June with a strained hamstring, and took the usual assortment of scattered days off in the ensuing months. As a result, Ruiz achieved the fewest number of plate appearances since his 2006 cup of coffee.
He never really found his feet, either. Ruiz’s walk rate sank further from his 2012 mark to a career low 5.3%, this time without the compensation of a high BABIP. For the first time since 2008, Ruiz failed to stay above league average at the dish, finishing with an 89 wRC+. Behind the plate, too, he seemed more confined, less able to spring in front of a pitch at any trajectory, less crisp with his throws. This is only natural for a catcher arriving at the mid-point of his 30s, and, in a vacuum, a catcher with competent defense and a bat only about 10% below average is perfectly suitable as a starter. But in the context of the 2013 Phillies, who needed everything to go right, Ruiz was another variable that didn’t turn out far enough in their favor.
Carlos Ruiz is one of several Phillies who are impossible to separate from their own nostalgic value, and it’s probable that the ownership keeping this well in mind had some part in the 3 year, $26 million deal that the Phillies inked him to yesterday. Bill provided more than enough analysis on this front, but, suffice it to say, history is not on Ruiz’s side. It’s true that free agent salaries this offseason looked poised to inflate markedly (thanks to Ruben Amaro, it is now a certainty). But the three-year forecast for a 35 year old at the most physically strenuous position on the field is not sunny. The Phillies will have to hope that Chooch breaks the curve. B-.