Carlos Ruiz came into his own last year at the age of 31. While his 2009 campaign was impressive for a catcher, 2010 was the year that he really became among the elite. Would anyone outside of Philadelphia know that in terms of overall value as a catcher, Ruiz was the third best catcher in the game last year behind McCann and Mauer? Probably not. And it wasn't just his remarkable season batting that sets Ruiz apart. He also had a fantastic season behind the plate. His season brings two questions: 1. Can he continue being this good and, 2. What took him so long to become this good?
Judging the defensive strength of a catcher is difficult to do. Matt Klaussen has done that just about as effectively as this Fan has ever seen. Check out this link and see for yourself. As there is no surprise at the top spot, which went to Yadier Molina, it was surprising to see Ivan Rodriguez at second. It was no real surprise that Ruiz came in third. It comes as no surprise that Roy Halladay threw a perfect game and a no-hitter with Ruiz behind the plate.
But Ruiz is definitely a late bloomer. He was signed by the Phillies way back in 1998 as a teenager and he really languished in their system for a long, long time. He didn't crack the .800 OPS barrier as a batter until 2004, a full six years after he signed. That was his second year in Double A ball. Before that, his OPS ended mostly in the .600s. By the time he was ready to rise, his way was blocked in the majors by Mike Lieberthal, who was a fine catcher for a few years with the Phillies in the mid-2000s.
By 2006, the Phillies had tired of back up catchers like Fasano and his ilk and Ruiz finally had his chance. The Lieberthal era ended and Ruiz became the number one catcher in 2007. But it still did not come quickly for him as a major league hitter. 2008 was particularly gruesome as he ended the season with a .219 average and a 63 OPS+. But he bounced back in 2009 and posted his first plus-100 OPS+ season. And then we all know what happened in 2010 as Ruiz really came on and had a terrific offensive season with a final slash line of .302/.400/.447.
Ruiz has always had terrific discipline at the plate. He doesn't strike out that often and he walks 50 to 55 times a season, which doesn't sound like much. But since a catcher--even a starting catcher--only gets 400 plate appearances a year, that number of walks is truly impressive. Ruiz had 55 walks in 2010 and only 54 whiffs. That's terrific. Tie that in with being the third best defensive catcher in baseball and you have a monster season for a catcher.
But can he maintain that kind of production? There are a couple of reasons to think he can. First, since he doesn't strike out a lot, he puts the ball in play. If you put the ball in play a lot, good things happen. Secondly, he doesn't hit a plethora of ground balls. For a catcher, he only hit into eight double plays all year. Ruiz hit a line drive once for every two ground balls. In addition, he is not overly influenced by his home/road split. Ruiz actually hit better on the road last year than at home. Plus, he is equally effective against both right and left handed pitchers.
The only indicator that he may regress just a bit is that his BABIP was .335. League norms seem to indicate that figure going down to .300 or so. Even so, there is no reason not to project Ruiz to hit .290 or so with an OBP in the .380 range. That's good stuff for a catcher that can block a pitch in the dirt as well as anyone and can play as good a defense as Ruiz can.
The feeling from this side of the aisle is that Ruiz should be an All Star caliber catcher for another two or three years at least. He has arrived and this Fan doesn't expect him to go away any time soon.