Phillies Walking a Tightrope at Catcher

ethanwitte
Jun 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp (29) talks with starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) during action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. The Toronto Blue Jays won 13-2. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp (29) talks with starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) during action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. The Toronto Blue Jays won 13-2. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Philadelphia Phillies have a number of good looking catching prospects nearly ready to push the current big league combo.

In his season-long quest for offense, manager Pete Mackanin has looked everywhere he can in order to find the right combination of a lineup that will consistently put runs on the scoreboard.

This has led to plate appearances by the likes of Jimmy Paredes, Cedric Hunter and even Peter Bourjos. While each has flamed out at certain points, one of the more pleasant surprises is the production the team is getting out of Cameron Rupp.

Rupp hasn’t been thought of in his career as much more than a backup over the long-term. If he were to be on a contending team right now, he probably wouldn’t be playing more than once or twice a week, if at all.

However, on the 2016 Phillies, Rupp has found the at-bats needed in order to produce a more than adequate 105 wRC+. His line (after Friday night) of .269/.306/.468 is better than league average, and his six home runs were 13th in baseball among catchers. He’s been a bright spot in a lineup that has had very few of them in the season.

More from That Balls Outta Here

On Saturday night, Rupp came through again, taking a 3-2 offering that Madison Bumgarner left over the middle of the plate and driving it out over the center field wall at AT&T Park for home run number seven, ultimately give the Phillies a 3-2 victory over the Giants’ ace.

The problem the team has been having with Rupp is with his handling of the pitching staff. At the beginning of the season, Mackanin paired the soon to be 28-year old with the younger guys on the staff (Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff) while Carlos Ruiz worked with the veterans (Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton/Adam Morgan).

It seemed to be working, as the pitching staff is what led the team to a winning record over the first two months of the year.

Then Eickhoff started struggling. Now, the struggles have been coming from Nola. When looking at why Eickhoff was getting pounded, many focused on the pitch selection and his leaning on his curveball entirely too much.

It could be that Mackanin placed this blame on Rupp for his pitch calling, or perhaps the skipper believed that Eickhoff would be less inclined to shake off the crusty veteran Ruiz, but whatever it was, it led to Eickhoff getting paired with Ruiz for his last three starts, which has resulted in a 1.93 ERA in 18.2 innings.

Ruiz has forced Eickhoff to throw his other pitches more often, resulting in better starts. According to Phillies beat writer Meghan Montemurro, this has given Mackanin the idea of pairing Ruiz with Nola in his next start to see what the result might be.

While Nola simply might be going through a rough patch right now, getting him hooked up with the veteran Ruiz could be a good antidote to his current pitching woes.

Therein lies the situation Mackanin finds himself in right now. As he searches for offense, he might be forced to take one of his better bats out of the lineup in order to straighten out his pitching staff.

The beloved veteran ‘Chooch’ is hitting a paltry  .216/.310/.333 in what is surely his final months in a Phillies uniform, which combined with his other numbers, gives him a 75 wRC+. That kind of swing in offense from Rupp to Ruiz is something the team can’t actually afford right now.

While there is no doubt this year’s version of the Phillies is a “pitching and defense” team, the lineup can’t continue to just bleed outs the way they currently have been, and replacing Rupp with Ruiz would only increase the bleeding.

It isn’t that Rupp is a bad defensive catcher. By the metrics, he’s a better framer than Ruiz (-0.2 framing runs to Ruiz’s -2.7). But Ruiz is a better thrower (0.1 throwing runs to Rupp’s -0.4). However, what the metrics don’t tell you is what lies in Eickhoff’s quote from Montemurro’s story:

"“There are times in the game when, in my head, I wouldn’t necessarily throw a changeup,” Eickhoff said. “But [Ruiz is] throwing it down, and I believe in what he’s throwing down. I trust what he’s doing. I have confidence in the pitch, too. It’s an evolving process with throwing it and when to throw it."

If there is a certain confidence that Ruiz inspires in his pitchers, it’s something that is really not quantifiable. Mackanin must see it as well, hence the pairing of Ruiz and Eickhoff. Since the results seem to be that Ruiz is helping him, then we as fans have to trust that it might be worth a try with Nola as well.

It boils down to this main point: Nola and Eickhoff are the future. Getting them, along with Velasquez and Zach Eflin, straightened out and confident have to be the priority at this point in the season.

The Phillies also have a number of good-looking catching prospects, a couple of whom, Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro, are getting closer to pushing for a role with the Phillies.

The return to losing results over this past month has ended any hope at a postseason berth, so development must be the key to the manager’s decisions. If that means starting Ruiz over Rupp more often, so be it.

But with that hope of Ruiz fixing the team’s ace comes the understanding that the offense will suffer as well. If Mackanin is alright with that, fans need to be at ease with it as well. As I said before, it’s a tough position for Mackanin to be in. Let’s hope it works.

Next: Phillies Slay the Giant(s)

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