Frequently beaten-up Mike Lieberthal once said something* about surviving as a catcher in the major leagues:
“You don’t have to hit to catch. We don’t have to hit 40 homers. We don’t have to run. We don’t have to steal bases. All you have to do is catch, and you’ll be in this league forever.”
And he was in the league forever. From 1994 to 2006, Lieberthal served as a Phillies backstop, tearing his ACL, MCL, meniscus, and various knee cartilages in the process by doing everything from diving back to first base to stepping out of a golf cart.
But, the point is, Lieberthal survived; not just his life, but his career that spanned over a decade in the sport’s most brutal position. Part of that was aided by the Gold Glove defense and two-time All-Star numbers he put up, and part of it was because that, as a catcher, offensive output is largely considered a bonus if a guy can keep the ball in front of him and call a great game.
Which brings us to today’s Phillies catcher. His name is Cameron Rupp, and he’s a pinstriped gigantosaurus covered in puppies. Rupp first appeared in a significant fashion for the Phillies in 2015, when he put up a .233/.301/.374 slash line and 1.0 WAR (1.1 dWAR, 0.5 oWAR) in 81 games. After the season, Pete Mackanin got in his ear, suggesting that with Andrew Knapp annihilating the pitching at Double A and Jorge Alfaro entering the mix in the Cole Hamels trade, Carlos Ruiz’s job was going to be up for grabs, and for Rupp, improving his swing would be a good use of his time. Rupp was considered a solid defensive catcher at that point, one for whom an uptick in offense would fortify his position on the active roster at a time of transition.
In April of the following season, he came back from training with his high school hitting instructor in Texas and slugged seven doubles and a home run, hitting .259 at the close of the month. Together with a resurgent Ruiz, they combined for the second highest SLG (.520) and fourth highest OPS (.857) among catchers. He also struck out 18 times and walked none in 54 AB.
He finished the first half with a 4-for-5 day against the Rockies, a pretty .287 BA next to his name. Things went down hill from there, however, and he finished the season slashing .252/.303/.447 in 105 games. An improvement over the previous year, certainly; his SLG bounced up from .374, but his OBP stayed about the same, just a hair over .300. Rupp had played some of his best baseball in April, as well as from June to mid-August, but floundering in September had tanked his success in a way that questioned the encouraging steps he’d taken.
As Fangraphs put it,
“This may not be especially exciting, but there are some good signs here.”
One of those good signs was that, while Rupp had clearly seen a slope on his success chart, his outs had been loud and hardly hit, indicating that he was making the contact he needed to without the luck to create hits. This happens to everyone, but Rupp’s seemed especially notable to FG writer Andrew Perpetua, who cited that Rupp’s tightened swing had allowed him to reach higher and further inside parts of the plate that he had never explored. He had also become more menacing to breaking pitches.
Here’s another quote that I’m including because, in far less academic terms, I have echoed this exact sentiment in the past:
Rupp is a big guy with very high exit velocity. If he can learn to elevate the ball just a little bit more, especially when playing in Citizen’s Bank Park, he could add a large number of home runs.
What I have stated is something along the lines of, “This man is a pair of Texas steers masquerading as a human, and there has to be a reservoir of power in there somewhere that, were he to tap into, could result in some utterly obliterated baseballs.” His status as the 15th most valuable catcher in the game by the end of 2016, generated by some of the more hieroglyphical baseball statistics, seemed to generate talk that, hey, if he can be a top-15 catcher, why not a top ten?
We began the 2017 season waiting for the answer to that question.
When 2017 ended, we seemed to have our answer: .217/.299/.417, 114 SO, and 34 BB in 88 games (Those walks actually double his 2016 total, if you’re squinting for silver linings). The catching picture in Philadelphia had become even more blurred with Chooch gone, Alfaro and Knapp showing up in the majors, and a suspected flurry of moves incoming.
Yet, earlier this month, the 29-year-old Rupp and the Phillies avoided arbitration for just over $2 million, meaning no move is on the short term schedule. Regardless of his role in 2018, Rupp is going to want to hit the ball like he never has before, presumably. And so we ask, as people who watched him hit .197 at Citizens Bank Park and .182 in June this past season, what would that even look like?
Let’s start with what’s already on his resume.
What he has done:
- April (.259/.273/.444, 7 2B in 54 AB) and June-July (.281/.358/.526, 8 HR, 7 2B, 1 3B in 135 AB) 2016
- Doubled walk rate from 2016 (5.7%) to 2017 (10.3%)
- At one point, he was extending the reach of his bat to turn inside—and more notably, high—pitches into hits and hard hit balls.
What he can do:
- He can hit lefties: .285 BA, .879 OPS in 235 AB against them for his career
- He has a .381 career BA with the bases loaded...? And a .524 SLG, but no grand slams?
- Something else: He hits NL West teams pretty well. He does not hit NL East teams well at all (.170 career BA vs. Mets in 34 games; .162 career BA vs. Marlins in 33 games).
- Hit breaking pitches.
- Look at this slide. Damn.
Rupp will be entering his sixth year in the majors in 2018, though his first two were extremely limited appearances. Nevertheless, through five seasons, he’s logged only 87 walks. In a more modern front office that stresses control of the strike zone; that went out and got the lumbering Carlos Santana because he’s a veteran who knows how to get on base; that could have sold high on Cesar Hernandez but has fallen in love with that leadoff-topping OBP; breaking out on the Phillies has never been so centered on walks.
But Rupp isn’t an OBP guy. He, as scholars have said, is a masher waiting to happen, but who just hasn’t really happened yet. Matt Stairs, before he left for San Diego, said Rupp was good about “using his hands, and he has good technique” in explaining how his exit velocity (92.4 mph) got where it is. And Rupp’s 2016 success was credited to “shortening his bat path and focusing on the top of the ball.” He was clubbing high pitches he had struck out on in 2015 and he was hitting fewer pop-ups. But we all saw those 2017 numbers: However he created his stretches of success in 2016, he could not replicate it the following year.
What happened? Who knows. Chris Edelstein’s name has never been mentioned as much as it was during Rupp’s 2016 success, so if the best way to repeat that is to return to his childhood hitting coach, then hopefully Rupp is doing that, because the end result was that he was hitting more pitches in a larger radii of the strike zone for more base hits. Perhaps, as Pete Mackanin once theorized, Rupp, a hitter of inconsistent output and low on-base percentage, had a few bad hacks and reverted to his less polished swing.
Mackanin compared it to taking golf lessons. Hitters in both sports can be taught the proper techniques in practice, but as soon as a few bad swings or shots take place, the natural inclination is to revert back to what feels comfortable.
Rupp is determined to not look back.
Steamer is projecting Rupp with another poor season in 2018: .222/.294/.396, 0.5 WAR. Although we’re a people who feel like we spent 2017 watching him swing and miss on infinite repeat at that high pitch he had, for a time, been able to reach, those numbers don’t have to be his future.
There’s the version of Good Cameron Rupp that we know, in which he tightens his swing and starts raining doubles on the outfield grass for several productive spurts. He doesn’t get a lot of RBI chances hitting in the eight-hole, but it’ll be a new lineup in 2018 with an increased focus on getting on base, so maybe he gets a few more opportunities. By the end of the first half, he’s in .260-.270 range, slugging .550, and maybe getting on base a little more, using improved patience to increase his walk total in the first month of the season from “0.”
Then, there’s the version of Good Cameron Rupp that we only think is in there somewhere: the one in which he taps more deeply into that power; in which he sees those high pitches, adjusts to apply that hair of elevation he’s missing, and, using those Citizens Bank Park dimensions he plays in 81 games a year... voila.
And hell, just because we’re baseball-starved, let’s remember that in this scenario, he’d be feasting on those breaking pitches he likes, too.
The more fundamental issues at stake for Rupp, sadly, is the one we started on with Lieberthal: If you’re an average catcher behind the plate, you can be below average standing at it and not lose your job. The problem is, Rupp’s not especially skilled behind it. He is not a good pitch framer. He is not a good pitch caller (just ask Bob McClure). And with a young staff throwing to him, he’s costing the Phillies not just runs, but precious development.
Pound-by-pound (and there are 260 of them on his massive frame), Rupp is probably the friendliest player in baseball, and you can’t tell me that size doesn’t matter at least on certain plays. But looking at the catching hole on this team, despite his size, Rupp hasn’t been able to fill it. Yet. If, even with some more ABs and some more adjustments, he still can’t then... well. At least we can imagine what it would like if he did.
*The author would like to apologize for linking to an article by Murray Chass. The author would like it known that he considers Chass a baseball mind of the absolute lowest quality, but that was from where the Lieberthal quote was sourced. Again, apologies.