Prospect Retrospective: Carlos Ruiz, C, Philadelphia Phillies
The best catcher in baseball this year is Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies, currently sporting a 5.0 WAR and a .335/.399/.559 slash line, 155 OPS+. He's also sporting plantar fasciitis in his left foot and is expected to miss the next month of the season. At age 33, this could well be his best major league season, but Ruiz has been an impressive player for the last four years.
He was never an especially hot prospect, so let's take a look at his background.
Carlos Ruiz was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent from Panama in 1998. He made his full-season debut in 2001, hitting .261/.290/.390 for Low-A Lakewood. He had a good defensive rep but wasn't much of a hitter yet, and I would have given him a Grade C. In 2002 he was awful with the bat, hitting just .213/.263/.327 in 342 at-bats for High-A Clearwater. At age 23 and unable to hit A-ball pitching, he didn't look like much of a prospect at all at this stage.
Ruiz played 52 games for Double-A Reading in 2003, hitting .266/.321/.337 in 188 at-bats, not impressive but at least he got his batting average away from the Mendoza Danger Zone. He also threw out 37% of runners. He had a good defensive reputation, but was pretty much nowhere to be found on prospect lists.
That began to change in 2004: he hit .284/.338/.484 with 17 homers, 22 walks, and just 37 strikeouts in 349 at-bats for Reading, suddenly developing considerable power. Scouting reports indicated that he shortened his swing and just focused on making contact. Previously, he was prone to over-swinging and trying too hard to hit for power, paradoxically reducing his production. By toning his approach down, he actually produced more. His defense still drew praise. I was suspicious about this sudden hitting outburst, wondering if it was repeatable, and gave him just a Grade C in the 2005 book.
Ruiz continued to hit in 2005, .300/.354/.458 in 347 at-bats for Triple-A Scranton. However, there was a lot of hitting in baseball at the time and his OPS was just +6 percent compared to circuit norms in the International League. I kept him as a Grade C and rated him a future backup with a good glove and occasional hitting.
Ruiz returned to Scranton for 2006 and improved, hitting .307/.389/.505 with 16 homers, 42 walks, and 56 strikeouts in 368 at-bats. He also put up a .261/.316/.435 line in 69 major league at-bats. He was 27 now, and I kept him at a Grade C due to age.
That was accurate for 2007 (.259/.340/.396) and 2008 (.219/.320/.300). However, in '09 he improved with a .255/.355/.425 mark, pushing his OPS+ to 105, then he burst out in '10 at .302/.400/.447, OPS+127. You know the story from here. Overall, Ruiz is a career .275/.363/.417 hitter in 2179 major league at-bats.
Was there anything to warn us that this guy could go from solid Triple-A/major league backup catcher to becoming an All-Star?
One thing that stands out in the statistical record: his career, even before the breakout, was marked by low strikeout rates. I have noticed that other players who take unexpected steps forward, as Ruiz has done, profiled similarly. They might not have been monster hitters in the minors, but they didn't strike out much, even when they were struggling.
Ruiz's numbers this year are boosted by a career-high .347 BABIP, so I think we can expect regression closer to his career norms next season. That would still make him an above-average catcher. His main risk at this point is age; he turns 34 in January.
Ruiz was signed for just $8,000. I'd say that's a helluva bargain.