This time last year, most Phillies fans had all but declared Carlos Ruiz’s career over. He had just completed an age-36 season in which he posted the lowest batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and isolated power of his career. According to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, he contributed negative value above replacement to the Phillies for the first time in his career in 2015 (Baseball Prospectus rated his 2007 season as below replacement level). As the season wore on, the Phillies had gradually replaced him as the starter with Cameron Rupp. With a club option coming up following the 2016 season, it stood to figure that neither the Phillies, nor any other team for that matter, would sign up for a year of a 38-year old catcher.
Since that moment of doom and gloom for Chooch, two different teams have decided he was worth parting with not-quite-trivial players to acquire. How did that happen for a 37-year old at a strenuous defensive position who is clearly on the decline? Well, unsurprisingly, he benefitted from rest.
Entering 2016, the Phillies (unofficially) made very clear what had been (unofficially) somewhat clear over the second half of 2015: Carlos Ruiz was the second-string catcher behind Cameron Rupp. Sure, Chooch started opening day against the Cincinnati Reds, but there wasn’t a single week before his late-August trade to the Dodgers where he started more than three games. Whether the team depth chart reflected it is immaterial to the reality: Carlos Ruiz was the Phillies backup catcher.
Instead of viewing that change of role as a demotion resulting from a decline in performance–which it may well have been–I prefer to interpret it as a smart move on the part of the Phillies to nurse as much effective performance out of their aging catcher. While it’s difficult to say whether the additional rest was the cause*, Ruiz was once again a positive contributor to the Phillies (and later, the Dodgers) in 2016. With the Phillies, he recorded his highest OPS (.719) since 2012 and his exit velocity was uniformly up on all batted ball types over 2015.
Whatever the cause (probably additional rest), Ruiz had a successful 2016 relative to expectations with a batting line that was more or less league average (100 wRC+ and 97 OPS+ with Phillies). As a testament to his value as a baseball player in 2016, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are generally regarded as a progressive, “smart” front office, thought Chooch was a worthwhile player to acquire for their race to a division title and, later, the postseason. Not only was he worth getting, but he was worth potentially angering Clayton Kershaw, et al. by giving up A.J. Ellis and throwing in a not useless relief prospect in Tommy Bergjans on top of that. After appearing in seven of the Dodgers’ 12 postseason games, they traded him for a bona fide major league reliever in Vidal Nuno this offseason.
In terms of grading, we have to adjust relative to expectations. As a nearly-perfectly league-average player in 2016, Ruiz earns a solid unadjusted “C”. However, considering the reasonable expectation entering the season that 2016 would be Chooch’s last as a major leaguer, that he performed as well as he did, albeit in a limited role, and will likely continue to play major league baseball in 2017 for the Seattle Mariners has to count for something. How much count that is a matter of personal taste and Chooch has undoubtedly earned the benefit of a generous adjustment.
*While it is certainly possible that “bad luck” explains his down 2015 season as evidenced by an uncharactaristically low .242 BABIP (.287 career), his 15.9 percent hard-hit rate was by far the lowest of his career, suggesting that there was an actual performance dip. Further, it stands to reason that a 37-year old playing the most physically taxing position on the diamond would benefit from additional off days.