The Apotheosis of Carlos Ruiz

Thursday night’s stirring comeback, capped by a two-run, ninth-inning walkoff double from catcher Carlos Ruiz, certainly lends itself to impromptu hagiography of our paunchy Panamanian. But when you step back and look at Ruiz’s season, we’re clearly looking at something special.

Ruiz, signed out of relative obscurity, appeared in the majors suddenly and without fanfare–the kind of debut that makes his transformation into a clutch hitting maven all the more puzzling. In fact, for a long time he wasn’t even the most famous Carlos Ruiz in American sports. (That distinction went to Carlos Ruiz, the Guatemalan striker for the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas of Major League Soccer. He twice led MLS in scoring, was league MVP in 2002, and was once traded straight up for Landon Donovan.)

Ruiz the baseball player is in his fourth full season as the Phillies’ starting catcher. He came up as a good-field/no-hit type, a sort of fringe major league starter whose excellent glove made up for a lack of hitting ability, particularly in a lineup as potent as the one the Phillies have been running out during Ruiz’s tenure. From 2007 to 2009, Chooch has been a poor man’s Yadier Molina, a superb defensive catcher with very good plate discipline, but not much in way of offensive skill and an overeagerness to show off his arm, which led, from time to time, to needless errors.

The other odd thing about Ruiz is his uncanny ability to hit in the playoffs. In 2008, he hit only.219 in the regular season, but hit .333 in the NLCS and .375 in the World Series. This phenomenon carried over into 2009–in 43 World Series plate appearances, Chooch has 12 hits, seven for extra bases, nine walks, and a 1.194 OPS. This phenomenon, “Choochtober,” led me to joke that someone ought to hit him over the head at some point during the regular season and tell him it’s the playoffs.

That appears to have happened in 2010. Not only is Carlos Ruiz pulling his weight defensively, he’s turned into a tremendously valuable offensive player as well, particularly considering the extended absences of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and others.

Chooch is currently posting a .385 OBP, second on the team to Jayson Werth and fifth among major league catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. He’s posted 2.3 WAR this season, already a career high, sixth among major league catchers, and ahead of such luminaries as Jorge Posada, Yadier Molina, Victor Martinez, His OPS+ of 117 is fourth on the team, behind only the Holy Trinity of Howard, Werth, and Utley. Ruiz has always walked–his OBP is consistently 100 points above his batting average–but 2010 has seen him combine that plate discipline with gap power and a higher batting average. With Jimmy Rollins’ OBP suffering so much and would-be table-setters Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco often being moved to the middle of the order due to injuries, a good case can be made for Chooch to bat first or second in the order.

At age 31, and posting a career-high BABIP, 2010 is likely more a career season than a breakout for Ruiz. But it’s a lot of fun to see someone who’s spent his entire career as a spear carrier step into the spotlight. Here’s hoping his season-long hot streak continues.

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