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The Sudden Decline of Carlos Ruiz

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Just last year, Carlos Ruiz was defying catcher aging curves by producing like one of the best catchers in baseball at age 35. One year late, Ruiz plays like a 36 year old catcher. What happened? He got old.

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In a season as fraught with failure and poor performance as 2015 has been and will likely continue to be for the Phillies, it is a Herculean effort to call attention to all of the disappointments we witness on a nightly basis. Between the conspicuously futile struggles of Chase Utley and Freddy Galvis, the inevitable run-surrendering non-Hamels pitchers, and Ryne Sandberg's befuddling bullpen usage there are so many stories of pain and struggle that some are bound to slip through the cracks.

Until Monday night, Carlos Ruiz's 2015 had escaped my notice. I guess I knew that he wasn't performing at the level he did last year when he was the 6th best catcher in baseball according to fWAR and had the 10th best wRC+ among catchers with at least 400 PA. No one was mistaking Ruiz for Buster Posey, but, at 35 years old, what he was doing was plenty good especially if the most likely goal for the organization was to trade him for a non-trivial return.

Then, 2015 came. Carlos is in the 2nd year of a 3-year, $26 million contract at age 36. That a catcher still has knees at that age is a minor accomplishment in itself, so just that Ruiz is still capable of playing every day and coming in an out of the crouch deserves notice.

Despite playing every day, I couldn't have told you much about Ruiz's season until yesterday morning. If you asked me Monday afternoon how Ruiz was playing, I probably would have said, "I'm honestly not sure, but I think he's having a slightly down year so far compared to his previous standards." Basically, I would have to admit that I hadn't given much thought to Chooch. He hadn't done anything to make himself conspicuous.

Then, on Monday night, he threw to first on a Brandon Phillips ground ball that allowed Billy Hamilton to score from third. All of a sudden, all eyes were on Ruiz.

Of course, this play was not the result of Carlos Ruiz sliding further down the steep slide that is the back end of the aging curve; it was simply a poor decision--one that any player of any age and ability-level is liable to make from time to time. What this play did, though, was put Carlos Ruiz in the spotlight for the first time this season. All of a sudden a player we hadn't had the bandwidth to notice forced himself into our attention. It turns out that maybe we should have been noticing Ruiz's 2015 struggles all along.

A quick and dirty slash line comparison reveals the extent of Ruiz's struggles:

AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2014 .252 .347 .370 105
2015 .243 .319 .285 69

While his batting average is pretty much in line with last season--a pretty typical season for Ruiz--he is clearly struggling to get on base and hit for power at the same rate he has in the past. Of 20 catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, Ruiz ranks 19th in fWAR, 17th in wRC+, and 20th in ISO. To put it simply: Carlos Ruiz has been a poor offensive player in 2015.

That fact, however, is not all that interesting without attempting to explain the cause of those struggles. In other words, we want to know whether Chooch is struggling because age has caught up to him or because he has been unlucky. If he's simply been unlucky, we would expect to see a low BABIP without any underlying changes in quality of contact or plate discipline.

Unfortunately for Ruiz, that is not the case. His 2015 BABIP of .289 is in line with his career .293 BABIP. Moreover, his approach at the plate has been pretty much the same as it has been his entire career.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2015 25.1% 60.6% 75.0% 93.8% 51.9% 62.1% 5.0%
Career 23.1% 61.1% 72.8% 93.3% 49.7% 56.9% 5.1%

He's swinging at pitches and making contact at pretty much the same rates as he has his entire career. The only difference worth mentioning is that he is seeing more first pitch strikes--and more pitches in the zone overall--this year than he has previously, indicating that pitchers are probably more willing to challenge Ruiz in the zone than they have been in his career thus far.

The quality of contact Ruiz has been making in 2015 lends support to the wisdom of that approach.

Soft% Med% Hard%
2015 21.3% 65.6% 13.1%
Career 16.3% 54.6% 29.1%

Even if you are justifiably skeptical of the accuracy of quality of contact as tabulated by humans in a press box, the large difference in results here shows a clear decline in Ruiz's ability to make solid contact. The simplest, and seemingly most plausible, explanation for this decline is that Chooch, at 36 years of age, doesn't have the pop in his bat that he once had. His 2015 struggles are, therefore, the product of a physical decline, which is not exactly surprising for a 36 year-old catcher in the 10th year of his major league career.

That physical decline has extended to his defense as well. Over his career, Ruiz has thrown out approximately 37% of would-be base stealers. This year, that is down to 23%. Although recent evidence suggests that pitchers play a bigger role in controlling the running game than previously acknowledged--and the Phillies have soft-tossers like Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams starting 40% of their games--it seems reasonable that a drop-off that severe is at least somewhat attributable to teams identifying a decline in Ruiz's ability to catch runners stealing.

Ruiz's sudden decline, therefore, is most likely a symptom of his advanced age rather than a unlucky spins of the batted ball roulette wheel. Ruben Amaro has been unfairly criticized for waiting too long to trade older players like Marlon Byrd, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels. Not trading Ruiz at the 2014 deadline or this past winter, though, might be an instance where that criticism can be justly levied.