Whither Carlos Ruiz’ Power?

ethanwitte
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Throughout his tenure as the Phillies starting catcher, Carlos Ruiz has not only proven to be a fan favorite, but he’s also proven a favorite of his teammates. The man fondly nicknamed “Chooch” has played decent defense (though Baseball Prospectus thinks his framing is a little weak), has handled the pitching staff with aplomb and has even chipped in with some above average offense.

His best year with the bat came in 2012, when Ruiz hit for a .325/.394/.540 slash line, clubbed a career high 16 home runs, drove in 56 runs, and compiled a .398 wOBA. Of course, it would be irresponsible if I didn’t mention that he may have had a little help that season, but even if you erased that 2012 season off his record, he has been an above average batter in 4 of his other 7 seasons as a full-time player.

That is why I was a little caught off-guard when I saw Ruiz’ numbers thus far in the 2015 season. Admittedly, I haven’t watched every inning, but even still, Ruiz’s offensive ineptitude so far seemed a bit strange, specifically his lack of power.

After Tuesday’s game, Ruiz’s line sat at .232/.321/.246 for the season. In 78 plate appearances, he has just one extra base hit, a double hit on April 27th. His power numbers in the past, except for 2012, haven’t been exceptional, as he’s hovered around a .110 ISO for most of his career. But even still, his .014 ISO this year is almost laughable. His fly ball percentage this year (33.3%) isn’t too far off of his career average (34.7%), so it’s not like he isn’t getting anything in the air.

Is there an explanation for this? Let’s take a closer look. When I thought about Ruiz, I asked myself three questions:

More from That Balls Outta Here

1) Is his bat speed slowing down, and can we prove it if it is?
2) Are pitchers approaching him differently than in the past?
3) What is he doing with pitches in and out of the zone?

Bat speed is one of the things most associated with the ability to hit for power. To me, however, it is very difficult to measure. It’s not like a pitch thrown by a pitcher that can be recorded by a radar gun. Instead, I thought outside of the box a little. To look at bat speed, I thought about where he hits the ball.

To me, if a player’s bat speed is still intact, he’s more likely to hit the ball up the middle or to the pull side. Is this a faulty way of thinking? Possibly, but it’s what I have now, so I’m going with it. Baseball Savant has a wonderful database on players that examines their spray charts over the course of a season. I could put a million pictures here, but I won’t. Instead, you can click and see the difference for yourself. Here’s Ruiz’s spray chart from 2013, and here is his spray chart thus far in 2015.

It’s quite apparent from these charts that, if we base our bat speed determination on where a ball is hit, there has been some slippage. Most of Ruiz’s balls in play this year are on the opposite side of the field. He’s still putting the ball in play at his usual pace, as his K% isn’t alarmingly far off his career average (15.4% this year vs. 11.5% career), so my next question is: are pitchers pitching him differently?

I thought that perhaps pitchers are attacking Ruiz with a different game plan in mind. For example, if pitchers are putting the ball on the outside part of the zone more often, naturally, one might expect Ruiz to hit the ball to the opposite field as a consequence and that is what is reflected in those spray charts. Here is where pitchers pitched Ruiz from 2007-2014:

And here is what Ruiz has faced so far in 2015:

To my eye, there really isn’t much difference in where the pitchers are approaching him, location-wise. They still seem to be attacking the outer half just as much as they have in the past. The next step is a question of what they are throwing Ruiz, and to me, this is most telling piece of evidence. This is a chart of what types of pitches have been thrown to Ruiz throughout his career:

As you can plainly see, there has been an upward trend in hard stuff being thrown to Ruiz, and a marked decrease in the “soft” stuff. This screams to me that pitchers simply don’t believe that Ruiz can hit the ball out of the park anymore. They are no longer respecting power as a part of his game.

In his career, his highest ISO number is against four seamers (.169). Of course, the same could be said of most players, but if a pitcher were to game plan against him, they would more than likely stay away from the fastball, as he’s shown he’s more likely to hit that particular type of pitch out of the park. Now that his power is waning, as the chart shows, pitchers are attacking him with the heat more often than not.

Looking at the third question, when he’s getting these pitches in the zone, he’s not doing a lot with them so far. His Z-Contact% (contact percentage of pitches swung at in the zone) for 2015 is at 90.1, three points below his career average of 93.2%. He’s not chasing pitches out of the zone either (21.5% O-Swing%).

But what did strike my eye is comparing his Z-Swing% with the Zone%, swinging at pitches in the zone versus pitches he is seeing in the zone. He seems to be quite passive this year at the plate. 52.6% of pitches thrown to Chooch this year are in the zone, the highest he’s seen in 6  years. This might lead you to believe he will swing at them more often. However, his Z-Swing% is 56.3%, which if it holds, will be the lowest of his career.

To put that all in layman’s terms, Ruiz is seeing more pitches that are in the strike zone, but isn’t swinging at them as much. As we saw previously, most of those pitches are fastballs, which he has hit well in the past. This makes for a disturbing trend going forward.

What does it all mean? What can we glean from this information? Since we can’t get into Ruiz’s head and see what he sees, feel what he feels, the most educated guess we can make is that he is simply slowing down. He is having more trouble getting around on the strikes than in the past and as a result, isn’t able to do much with them.

Are those 7,557 innings he has caught during his 9+ seasons beginning to finally catch up to him? Perhaps. It’s important to remember that it is still early in the season, and some of these numbers could bounce back. It’s also important to remember that this is a month’s worth of data, so there is at least the beginning of a pattern starting to emerge.

As a person who has enjoyed watching Chooch play since he started in 2006, it’s a little depressing to see a power decline come on like this. But as with us all, players get older and start to see their physical skills erode. The best we can hope for is that Ruiz can get an extra bit of bat speed back and begin to do a little more damage. Otherwise, his days as the Phillies catcher could be numbered.

All stats from Baseball Savant, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.

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