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The Passing of the Torch at Catcher

ruiz lidge AP

Ruiz celebrates the 2008 World Series title, AP photo

The Phillies are in an organizational transition. They’ve moved on from leaders that helped the organization see its best days in Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels.  The Phils will look toward new players to lead them to another stretch of glory days at shortstop, second base as well as in the starting rotation and are probably close to doing so at other positions also.  When all such changeover is done with, there’s one position that will have an almost tangible “passing of the torch” from old to new, and that is at catcher.

We all know how much Carlos Ruiz has quantitatively contributed to the Phillies. He’s played 1021 games in a Phillies uniform. He’s had 3691 plate appearances, of which 855 have resulted in a hit, and 65 that have resulted in a home run. He has the third most WAR among catchers in franchise history. But what’s unique about the man known as “Chooch” is that a good portion of his contribution isn’t even quantifiable like a common statistic.  Sure, he’s caught 8,102 innings for the Phillies, but that barely scratches the surface on what he’s meant to his team behind the plate.

Ruiz has been able to manage an entire game as an on-field chief.  I remember times when Ruiz would call a timeout to go talk to a pitcher that was on the verge of a meltdown. Sure, that’s common–but Ruiz always seemed to be good at it. It almost felt like he could channel his inner Dr. Phil in the middle of a stadium packed with over 40,000 people.

Another thing he’s been remarkable at is being a mentor for his pitchers. He’s been outstandingly helpful to younger pitchers–and even a few older ones. Roy Halladay gave a large portion of credit for his perfect game in May of 2010 to Ruiz.  Other pitchers have historically done the same.  And who is better for the Phils’ pitchers of the future to learn from before his days are through in City of Brotherly Love?

With all of Ruiz’s notable qualities, it’s still no secret what the Phillies’ plan for the catcher position will be for 2016. Cameron Rupp essentially became the starter towards the latter portion of the 2015 season, bumping Ruiz to a part-time role, and that should continue in 2016.  But while he’s missing from the lineup, Ruiz is still able to influence the team around him.  In the past Rupp has pointed out that Ruiz is a valuable resource to learn from and other backstops have expressed the same notion.

It’s possible that one of the team’s highly touted catching prospects, Andrew Knapp or Jorge Alfaro, will be Major League ready before long. But the point of the matter is Ruiz just doesn’t seem to have much left in the tank physically, as unfortunate as that is.

Whoever the catcher of the future is will have a tall task at hand. It’s not everyday that someone is asked to take over for a player that was one of the best and most beloved at their position in franchise history. It’ll take a little while for fans to digest the end of The Chooch Era, too.  Keep in mind that two of the most iconic pictures in Phillies history feature Ruiz hugging a pitcher (Brad Lidge in 2008 and Roy Halladay in 2010).

But that’s where the Phillies and their fans are in 2016. It’s the reality that we all have to face. I, for one, am excited. I’d rather see it end this way than the way that Doc Halladay’s career ended with the Phillies, as a struggling and ailing former star, trying to reclaim better days. Or Cliff Lee‘s time here, that wrapped up with his quietly becoming a free agent from the far-off distant land of the 60-day disabled list. The passing of the torch is the best outcome, and I’m excited to see what 2016 brings at the catcher position.

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