If their recent offensive surge is a sign of things to come for the Phillies, the team won’t need Carlos Ruiz to duplicate the other-worldly .934 OPS he posted in 2012 when he returns to the lineup.
That is the good news.
The bad news is that Ruiz’s absence has exposed the defensive shortcomings of catcher Erik Kratz. Despite undeniable pop at the plate, Kratz was essentially a minor league lifer until netting 141 at bats as Chooch’s 31-year-old backup last year. It took him a decade to reach the big leagues for a reason. Through his first seven starts, we may just be seeing it.
Easiest to identify are the communication difficulties between Kratz and Roy Halladay that landed him on the bench for Doc’s second start in favor of Humberto Quintero. All parties involved, except Kratz himself, downplayed the catcher’s role in the early-season struggles of the pitching staff. But if reading between the lines, Halladay’s words were hard to ignore. Here is what Kratz had to say on Monday, courtesy of Matt Gelb at the Inquirer:
“There’s one thing that’s consistent back there, and that’s me. So I have to look at myself and look at how we’re doing back there. If I can’t help the team improve, they put [Quintero] in there. I have to do a better job, for sure.”
Kratz’s deficiencies have extended well beyond basic game calling thus far. Back in the lineup on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 32-year-old continued to have difficulty catching, blocking and framing pitches that are routine for the majority of major league catchers. He has dropped pitches he should catch. He has received pitches in a manner that turn strikes into balls when a catcher’s objective is obviously to do just the opposite.
On Tuesday, a Kratz passed ball allowed Jordany Valdespin to scamper home from third in the fifth inning. Luckily the game was already well in hand.
And then Wednesday night, again in the fifth, Kratz let a sinking Kyle Kendrick offering skip under his glove with runners on first and second in a 5-2 game. Egregiously, Kratz made no attempt to drop down into a blocking position and both runners advanced. Largely due to a Mets base running blunder, Kendrick was able to get out of the inning unscathed and the Phillies extended their lead in the next frame to seal the win.
This good fortune is not likely to continue for Kratz. At some point it is going to happen in a big spot. To his credit, he has gunned down two of five would be base stealers and has only been officially charged with one passed ball. But to the naked eye, those passed ball statistics sure seem to be generous (Wednesday’s gaffe was somehow ruled a wild pitch).
This is a painful reality to point out. Now at 32 years old, many hoped that Kratz and his Godshall’s Quality Meats commercial would be the feel-good second coming of fan favorite Chris Coste. The parallels between the two players are undeniable, but Coste never seemed to be this much of a liability defensively.
Like Coste, Kratz clearly has some thunder in his bat. He has 10 home runs in 210 major league at bats (including 9 last year) and eclipsed double digits homers five different seasons in the minor leagues. That type of power is an attractive attribute for a backup catcher, but he has to improve behind the plate. Fortunately for him, there are 16 games on the schedule before Ruiz can return. Come April 28, the Phillies have a decision to make – whether to stick with Kratz or Quintero – that will tell us if they think Kratz’s play behind the plate in 2013 has been indicative of his overall skill set or just an ugly stretch of poor play. As the incumbent, Kratz is surely the favorite.
It is important to note that we are undoubtedly all spoiled by Ruiz’s defensive brilliance. While the return of his bat will be a welcomed sight for the lineup, make no mistake about it, his potent presence behind the dish will have the biggest impact.