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Deconstructing Chooch

Something of a forgotten man in a Phillies lineup that otherwise boasts five 2009 all-stars and two Gold Glove winners at the middle infield spots, Carlos Ruiz nonetheless turned in his best big-league season at age 30 last year. He leads a list of Phils newly eligible for arbitration, and with catching prospects Jason Jaramillo, Lou Marson and Travis D’Arnaud all traded out of the organization in the last twelve months, it seems very likely that Chooch will be around awhile. Should we be excited about this? Should the Phils consider a long-term deal with the Panama native and unlikely October hero?

Ruiz is entering his age-31 season, but there are a number of reasons not to be overly concerned about age-related decline anytime soon—and even some grounds for optimism that his best work might be in front of him. Perhaps most significant, he didn’t really start playing organized baseball until he signed a professional contract at age 19. His high school in Panama didn’t support a team, and he didn’t even switch to catching until after he signed. That means a bit less wear and tear on his body than most catchers starting their fourth decade of life. For another thing, Charlie Manuel has been careful not to overuse Ruiz; despite a track record of mostly good health, he's never caught more than 117 games in the majors. With newly signed vet Brian Schneider set to back him up for the next two seasons, this is likely to continue. 

At the same time, Manuel has long insisted that Ruiz could be an above-average major league hitter, and in 2009 Ruiz finally began to show as much, establishing career bests almost across the board with a .255/.355/.425 line in 373 plate appearances for a 104 OPS+. He drew walks in nearly 13 percent of his plate appearances, and stepped it up in advanced hitting metrics as well, including a .171 Isolated Power rate that was more than double what he did in a miserable 2008 campaign. Best of all, there’s little reason to believe that this performance was fluky: Ruiz’s batting average on balls in play was .266, well under the .285 mark of his so-so 2007 season. His line-drive rate was broadly within career norms as well. The one boost came in his home run to fly ball ratio, which rose to 8.1 percent after sitting around 5 percent through the previous two seasons.

Interestingly, it seems like a slightly more aggressive approach, at least compared to the previous season, helped Ruiz in 2009: he swung at 40.1 percent of the pitches he saw, up from 37.4 percent in 2008. Given the increases in both his walk rate and his power production, however, it seems that he made better choices about when to swing and when to take—a very encouraging development for a player entering baseball middle age.

But as Manuel’s resolution to stick with Ruiz through his offensively offensive 2008 season demonstrated, he’s not primarily out there for his bat. With Yadier Molina around, Chooch might not ever win a Gold Glove, but he enjoys a very good defensive reputation nevertheless. While defensive statistics are notoriously murky, particularly for catchers, most of the data we have suggests that the rep is earned. Ruiz might be the best in the game at blocking pitches, allowing all of one passed ball in 2009. He set career bests for Range Factor and fielding percentage both, and threw out 27 percent of opposing base stealers, which is neither great nor awful. Overall, this analysis pegged him as the 8th-best defensive backstop in the game last season. (Paul Bako, whose plus glove rep was utterly baffling to me, came in at #100.) Another, compiled during the season, ranked him fourth in the game.

So what’s he worth? FanGraphs’ "Dollars" metric suggests that Ruiz’s 2009 performance would have earned him $10 million as a free agent, and its 2010 projections forecast that his value will be even higher in 2010. Of course, the Phils won’t pay Ruiz anywhere near that much (and a good thing, too); recent estimates put his likely 2010 salary around $1.5 million. The question is whether the Phils, evidently close to their self-imposed cap for the coming season, should perhaps try to save a few hundred thou by furnishing Ruiz some income certainty over a longer period.

I see no reason why not. The pattern of Ruiz’s entire career, through his 

unusually long minor league apprenticeship to his four years in Philadelphia, is that he adapts and improves. Whether he’ll register further gains beyond 2009, I don’t know—but if he "only" repeats that performance in his age 31 to 33 seasons, which seems a reasonable expectation, he’d still be a bargain for the duration of that deal. And the cupboard is bare: the closest guy the Phils have to a catching prospect is 19 year-old Sebastian Valle, who’s flashed a promising bat but has defensive questions and is yet to perform well through a full minor league season I’d offer Ruiz three years, $10 million at a breakdown of $1.2 million, $3.8 million, and $5 million, possibly adding a team option/buyout for 2013, and consider myself very fortunate if he says yes.