Carlos Ruiz is the Best Catcher in the NL East: The Chooch Conspiracy

January 31, 2011 by  
Filed under Fan News

There has been no lack of chatter about the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation this offseason. After adding Cliff Lee to a staff that already included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the anticipation for Opening Day in the city of Philadelphia became all that more unbearable. While that certainly is true—the Phillies have the league’s best rotation—we must read between the lines as well.

Within the National League East exists another top rotation. Entering the season, the Atlanta Braves boast a rotation that features two wily veterans in Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, and thee young pitchers who feel like they still have something to prove: Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor.

While they aren’t the Phillies’ rotation, they could be a potent group of starting pitchers as well.

So with that in mind, what do both of these teams, who will feature 10 different starting pitchers, reside in different cities and wear different uniforms have in common? They both have talented catchers that don’t receive nearly enough credit for the work they do both offensively and defensively—Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann.

McCann, 26, struggled with his vision in 2010, and his offensive production took a direct hit. He posted a slash line of .269/.375/.453 with 21 home runs.

While, out of the catcher’s position, those are excellent offensive numbers, they represent a slight decline for McCann. His batting average from 2010 was the lowest of his career, and only his on-base percentage represented an increase from his 2009 totals.

The Braves catcher played good defense as well. He allowed just five passed balls while throwing out 36 would-be base stealers.

Even so, he allowed 84 stolen bases—the second highest total of his career—and with his vision and large frame, some wonder how long he can remain behind the plate, though, the Braves don’t seem concerned, as that won’t have any effect on their immediate future.

Up north, Ruiz, 32, has blossomed into a fine catcher for the Phillies. In 2010, he appeared in the most games of his career, catching 121 games for the club as they won their fourth straight division title. On top of that, he posted the greatest offensive numbers of his career, compiling a slash line of .302/.400/.447 with 8 home runs.

He was even better defensively, to the point where one scout called him the second best defensive catcher in the National League, behind defensive guru and catching prodigy Yadier Molina.

He allowed the fourth fewest stolen bases in baseball, among qualifying catchers, throwing out 20 would-be base stealers and allowing just 50 to successfully swipe a bag. He allowed just four passed balls and made five errors—a vast difference from the 14 made by McCann, the most as a catcher.

With those numbers in mind, it’s not easy to see why Ruiz would be the better catcher. In a simplistic view, it’s a fair split—McCann is the superior offensive catcher, while Ruiz is the superior defensive catcher. It can’t be that simple though, right? A full analysis shows that one catcher is more valuable to a club than the other.

This is not one of those situations where one players is “leaps and bounds” better than the other. In fact, it’s an extremely close race between Ruiz and McCann, but there are a few tell-tale statistics that should shed a little light on the situation.

In an era where the catcher is usually denoted as the weakest hitter on the diamond, both Ruiz and McCann have interesting offensive qualities. Normally, when people look at what McCann brings to the table, the first thing they’ll reference is his impressive power from behind the plate—something that not many major league catchers can offer. In 2010, McCann’s 21 home runs were the second most in major league baseball by a catcher.

However, power is quickly becoming the primary asset of McCann’s game. Since his breakout season in 2006, where he posted an impressive slash line of .333/.388/.572 with 24 home runs, his numbers have been steadily declining.

Excluding a slight rise in a few categories in 2008, all of his major offensive numbers outside of his on-base percentage have been on the decline. He also experienced a jump in his strikeouts—up to 20.5 K percentage.

Over the course of the past few seasons, McCann has gone from one of the game’s most well-rounded offensive catchers to a slightly above average power threat. On the other hand, Ruiz has developed into the more well-rounded offensive player.

In 2010, just four catchers that appeared in more than 100 games managed to bat above .300—Ruiz, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey and Victor Martinez. Considering that two of those men are the highest paid catchers in baseball, and Posey just took home the National League Rookie of the Year Award, that isn’t bad company.

A look at Ruiz’s on-base percentage shows that he was in even more select company in another statistic. He and Twins super-catcher Mauer were the only two catchers in baseball to post an OBP of .400 or higher. One professional baseball scout was recently quoted as saying, “I think he’s [Ruiz] is the best catcher in the game—other than [Joe] Mauer, who’s on a different planet.”

As we continue to analyze Ruiz’s numbers, it seems like that scout may be on to something.

Ruiz, who batted eighth in the Phillies order a majority of the season, was the only player in the lineup to have a batting average above .300. As the eighth hitter in the order, his job was to get on base in front of the pitcher, and no eight-hole hitter in baseball did a better job than Ruiz in doing just that.

Combined with his incredible OBP, which placed him behind Albert Pujols and in front of Ryan Zimmerman on the major league leaderboard, Ruiz also drew a lot of walks out of the eight hole. His walk percentage was 12.7 (55 walks overall).

Offensively, it isn’t hard to see that although McCann may have him edged in the “flashy” department, Ruiz has become the overall better hitter. Outside of the power department, Ruiz has shown excellent plate vision and strike-zone discipline, as well as the ability to get on base by any means necessary—be it by walk or hit.

Defensively, as we have already reviewed, both men can hold their own behind the plate. However, when comparing the staffs that the catchers must work with throughout the season, it’s a simple task seeing who has the tougher job.

In 2010, Ruiz’s job was no simple task. He handled a number of Cy Young caliber pitchers, and handled them well. Perhaps the most potent pitcher-catcher combination in the league, Ruiz and Halladay combined to throw two no-hitters, one of course being a perfect game.

Halladay, who is known to thrown a number of different pitches from a number of different arm angles, is not an easy pitcher to catch, but Halladay attributed Ruiz with much of his success. When the NL Cy Young feels comfortable throwing to you, you know you’re doing something right.

Taking a look at the rest of the Phillies’ staff in 2011, Ruiz is the only man for the job. After joining the Phillies in 2009, Lee posted a record of 7-4, with an ERA of 3.34, but those numbers are deceiving. Under Ruiz’s watch, Lee’s ERA could have easily been around 2.83, as his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggests.

Along with the front two starters in that rotation are three pitchers in baseball who are known for having late breaking pitches—Hamels, Oswalt and Brad Lidge. Having caught Hamels and Lidge the longest, their breaking pitches have become old news for Ruiz. Hamels, who is known for his “Bugs Bunny” change-up and late-breaking slurve is not an easy pitcher to catch.

Combined with Lidge’s slider, which Ruiz has mastered the defense of, and it’s not hard to understand why guys are comfortable throwing to him—the man catches everything.

The newest addition to the rotation, in terms of Phillies’ debuts, is Oswalt. Over the course of his career, Oswalt was known primarily as a two-pitch horse. He threw a fastball in the low- to mid-90s and a curveball that would buckle your knees regardless of whether you were sitting on it or not.

However, after arriving in Philadelphia, Oswalt began throwing another knee-buckler after watching Ruiz block Lidge’s slider in the dirt. Combining his slow, looping curveball with the downward movement of a change-up, Oswalt began throwing what he called a “Vulcan change-up.” With his added change-up, the revitalized Oswalt posted a record of 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA, finishing with arguably one of the best seasons of his career.

Simplified, we’re forced to wonder if some of these guys would be as good as they are now without Ruiz behind the plate. Outside of Halladay, who will have a Halladay-esque season regardless of who the catcher is, that is a debatable topic. But we’ll save that for another time.

In the long run, you’ll hear that McCann is the better catcher than Ruiz often, but don’t let a simple offensive statistic like home runs fool you—Ruiz is a well-rounded catcher that will give any catcher in the game, outside of Mauer, who, is apparently on another planet, a run for his money.

At the end of the day, the catcher’s job is to handle his pitching staff, and outside of Molina, no catcher comes close to Ruiz in that regard. While McCann is a great catcher, and certainly, the second best in the National League East, his offensive production is certainly not enough to value him over a rare, underrated talent like Ruiz.

Simply put, the Phillies staff would not be the Phillies staff without him. On the other hand, if the Braves were forced to move McCann out from behind the plate and replace him with an average defender, who would miss him back there?

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Article Source: Bleacher Report - Philadelphia Phillies

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