Catchers, as a group, are not good hitters. We all know this. And I don’t have the research to back this up, but it seems to me that the way in which they’re not good is that they tend to be poor at getting on base; it’s not that hard to find a catcher that has a little home run power, but they run slow and hit a lot of fly balls and/or strike out a ton, so they hit for poor averages, and they don’t draw walks. As a group. You Toronto folks have kind of an extreme example of the type of player profile I’ve got in mind.
A lot was made of the fact that Joe Mauer became the first (then the second and the third) catcher to lead the American League in batting average, but between the two leagues, that’s been done eight total times now; only three catchers have ever led their league in OBP, and only one of those (Mauer, in 2009) came in 1934 or later.
In fact, in the 65 seasons from 1947-2011, a catcher got enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title while finishing with a .400 OBP or better only 23 times, and it was done by only 13 different guys (Mauer and Jorge Posada four times each, Mike Piazza three, Gene Tenace and Jason Kendall twice apiece, eight other guys once each). Only Mauer and Posada have topped the .400 mark since 2001.
And I’m sure it’s much more common for catchers to start hot and then taper off — part of what makes it so hard for catchers to be good hitters is that it’s hard to avoid breaking down when you’ve been making quick, awkward movements from a squatting position while wearing heavy equipment for most of 162 games — but still, it seems worth noting that we’ve currently got three catchers who, if the season ended today, would join that list: Mauer (naturally), A.J. Ellis (who The Common Man discussed here about a month ago, when Ellis looked a bit more exciting than he does now), and Carlos Ruiz. It’s also worth noting that while neither of the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy and George Kottaras are likely to qualify at this point thanks to an injury from which the former is in the process of returning, they’ve combined to hit .311/.400/.531 in 245 PA.
Catchers as a group aren’t doing a ton better than normal, because guys like Kurt Suzuki and J.P. Arencibia are still being permitted to play full-time (and guys like Humberto Quintero and Jesus Flores, half-time) despite sending very strong signals that they’re incapable of effectively doing so. Regardless, at least by the avoiding-making-outs measure, it’s started off as a really good year for top-of-the-line offensive catchers.
The really interesting one, though — and one I haven’t seen or heard many people talking about (I mean analytically, not the All-Star campaign), is Ruiz. He’s hitting .348/.418/.560 — 4th, 3rd, and 7th in the NL in those categories, 6th in OPS, and 5th (through Saturday) in OPS+. He’s 5th in the NL in fWAR, tied for 6th in rWAR and tied for 8th in WARP.
Ruiz has kind of come out of nowhere once before. He was a guy who had spent seven years in the minors doing all sorts of non-prospecty things, including hitting .228/.275/.341 in 428 PA over two seasons in high-A. He did finally hit a more than respectable .307/.389/.505 in a second tour through triple-A at age 27, which got him a late-season callup and a starting role the next season. He didn’t perform well, though; on his thirtieth birthday, he was a guy who had spent seven years in the minors and hit .242/.329/.359 (77 OPS+) in 880 big-league plate appearances, totaling 1.8 rWAR. It’s a better performance than one might expect from someone who did what Ruiz did in the low minors, but it still…well…it was bad. Really very bad.
He’d also had a phenomenal World Series performance, though (.375/.500/.688 in the Phillies’ win over the Rays), and if you feel so inclined, you can credit that for what happened next. From 2009-2011, he put up a 113 OPS+ — good, and very good for a catcher — and averaged 3.0 rWAR a season, and had another brilliant World Series (.333/.478/.722 in the 2009 loss to the Yankees). Easily the weakest hitter in the 2008 Phillies’ starting lineup, Ruiz transformed himself, apparently overnight, into a downright good player.
Just 73 games into the season, Ruiz is 0.7 rWAR from his career high of 3.9, and has produced more runs with his bat (by any of Baseball Prospectus’, Baseball Reference’s, or Fangraphs’ measures) than he had in any prior full season. Has he made a similar leap again?
Well, I don’t know, but there are some weird things about it. The easy place to start is the BABIP, always, always the BABIP: he’s hit .363 on balls in play so far this season (or had through Saturday), compared to a previous career mark of .286 and a single-season high (in 2010) of .335. But per Fangraphs, his line-drive percentage and ground ball percentage are both way up this season, making a higher percentage of hits more likely, so while he’s probably getting a little bit lucky (as almost anyone having a great season probably is), there’s nothing so out of the ordinary.
But then there’s the walking, and the plunking. Ruiz has been walked unintentionally only ten times this season (and intentionally five times). His OBP is stellar because — in addition to the great batting average — he’s been hit by pitches twelve times this year, 50% more than anyone else in the NL and already two more than his career high (set last year). And Ruiz has always been more likely than the average player to be HBPed…just not that much more likely. His walk rate is around half of his norm (Fangraphs has it at 6.1%, and that includes the IBBs), and while he’s making up for almost all of that with the HBPs, that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that one can count on continuing. And would you want to? Getting on base is always valuable, but that kind hurts, and leads to injuries (and he’s missed time from HBPs before).
As you’d probably expect from the above (and again per Fangraphs), Ruiz is swinging at a lot more pitches than he used to. His overall swing percentage is 47.1% (through Saturday); 2011′s was 41.8%, and that was the first time he’d ever gone over 40%. He’s swinging at 64.9% of pitches in the zone (his first time over 58%), which is fine, I guess, but is also swinging at 29.2% of pitches outside the strike zone (previous high was 25.3% in 2011, and never above 22% prior to that). He’s making slightly less contact than his norms (though his contact and strikeout rates have always been great). Can a guy keep being excellent when he swings at everything and depends largely on the ball finding him to get on base? It seems to me like a matter of time before pitchers start to realize that he’s stopped walking, and simply stop giving him pitches to hit.
So he’s certainly a different hitter so far this year, but I don’t know that all the changes are good. The power, though? That…could be real. None of his nine home runs have been classified by HitTracker Online as “lucky,” though five of the nine were classified as having had “just enough,” and the system thinks that one of those HR would have been out in only one of the 30 MLB parks given average weather and wind (in which case I don’t see how you could classify it as something other than “lucky,” but that’s beside the point), and another in only three of the 30. Still, though, there’s the fact that he’s hitting more homers despite hitting fewer fly balls; 17.4% of the balls he’s hit in the air have gone out, more than twice his previous career high, and given the high BABIP, we can probably safely assume that he’s hitting the ball a lot harder than he used to when he’s not getting it in the air, too.
So I don’t think Ruiz is one of the five or six best hitters or players in the National League, and I don’t think he’s likely to maintain anything close to a .400 OBP without becoming significantly more selective than he’s been so far this year. But he’s clearly locked in right now, and hitting the ball a lot harder than you’d ever imagine a guy who once slugged .359 as a totally-age-appropriate hitter in the minors could. He’s also the only Phillie worth watching with a bat in his hands right now, and isn’t it possible that he’s swinging at everything right now because he happens to be hitting the hell out of everything right now? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how long this lasts, and how he adjusts if and when he starts to struggle a bit.