The catching shift: Rupp earning a long look

Cameron Rupp, image- Jay Floyd

Cameron Rupp, in a younger day. Image- Jay Floyd

Since 1940, the Phillies have started six catchers for more than five seasons. Together, Andy Seminick, Clay Dalrymple, Bob Boone, Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal and Carlos Ruiz have a career average WAR of 20.8. Boone is a little higher than the others, while Lieberthal is a tad lower than the others. But nobody is near the threshold for Hall of Fame discussion, and nobody is certainly just average.

So it’s remarkable that, through their modern history, the Phillies have employed such a large collection of above-average, non-elite catchers who have helped to define that team’s specific era.

Now we come to the end of yet another era, that of a world championship and five postseason appearances. Ruiz has been the steady force during this era, accruing a 20.6 WAR over 10 seasons. We’re seeing the transition in real time, as Cameron Rupp has started 12 of the team’s 21 games so far in August. In July Rupp started 13 of 25 games, and in June he started 13 of 27 games.

Part of this shift is Ruiz’s poor numbers since May 22. In those 43 games (164 plate appearances), Ruiz is hitting .188 with a .267 OBP and .278 SLG.

But Rupp has played his way into the job. Since June 19 – a 31-game stretch of 120 plate appearances – Rupp is hitting .252 with a .300 OBP and .414 SLG. His power has come around in that time; he’s hit all five of his home runs during this period, and like the one we saw Monday night against the Mets, he has enormous power potential.

Now, yes, that kind of offense isn’t life-changing. A few mammoth dingers don’t necessarily make Rupp the everyday starting catcher in 2016. But Rupp’s value is higher because of his defensive ability; he’s caught 13 of 36 runners stealing, good for 36 percent. That’s higher than the 28 percent league average and puts him between Derek Norris of San Diego and Jason Castro of Houston. His defensive WAR of 0.8 is good for 11th in baseball among catchers; Miami’s J.T. Realmuto is just ahead of Rupp with an 0.9 dWAR, and he’s accrued nearly 300 more chances at the dish than Rupp.

Defensive WAR isn’t perfect, but it gives comparative measure and justifies what we’re seeing in action. Rupp is a solid fielding catcher with a strong arm – that much is true.

Then there’s Rupp’s framing. The process of tracking pitch framing is still relatively new, but early numbers indicate Rupp is a far better framer than Ruiz at this point in his career.

The StatCorner Catcher Report measures +Calls, or the number of strike calls that go a team’s way because of framing; Ruiz is at -100, meaning many more calls have gone against us when he catches. His RAA (runs above average saved by his framing) is at -13.3, second worst in baseball.

Rupp, meanwhile, is much less damaging. He’s only at a -5 in +Calls, and his RAA is just -0.6. At this young age, working with so many young pitchers, Rupp has much more promise than Ruiz, who has, for the most part, been a poor framer. In 2014 he rated at a -10.3 RAA (Rupp, in limited time, had a -1.1). And in 2013 Ruiz rated at a -6.6 RAA.

All this is to say that the days of Carlos Ruiz manning home plate exclusively are over. The Phillies are paying Chooch $8.5 million next year (the end of a debatable but acceptable three-year contract), so they likely aren’t looking at a valuable trading commodity anymore.

What’s more likely is that Rupp takes over exclusive starting catcher duties in 2016, allowing Ruiz to spell him breaks and provide leadership in the clubhouse and beyond. It’s possible that by 2017, one of Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp – both worthy prospects capable of starting down the line – could be ready to take over the dish. But you never know – if Rupp plays as an above-average defender and framer with surprising power, maybe we’re already looking at the next era in Phillies catching lore.

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