Entering this offseason, we all knew the Mariners had a couple spots to focus on. And though we certainly expected Jerry Dipoto get started quickly, I know that I didn't expect him to move quite this fast.
But in typical Trader Jerry fashion, less than a week after Game 7 of the World Series, he'd already moved to plug one of those leaks.
Now, Ruiz is far from a sexy backstop option, as he turns 38 in January and makes $4.5 million in 2017. The real question with Ruiz is whether he can repeat his 2016 campaign, in which he posted a 99 wRC+ and was worth 1.5 fWAR, or if he'll revert to his 2015 form, a nightmare campaign where his slash line was .211/.290/.285.
But after declining Chris Iannetta's club option, and after letting Steve Clevenger opt into free agency, the Mariners needed someone to help out Mike Zunino and/or Jesus Sucre behind the plate. Is Ruiz a good fit?
Ruiz was born in Panama, a country that has not produced many major leaguers other than one Mariano Rivera. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $8,000 in December of 1998, not long after dropping out of college in order to play for the Phillies' basball academy.
If Ruiz signing at the age of 19 wasn't surprising enough (most serious prospects sign at the age of 16 or 17), how about this: They had multiple chances to get him before. From a 2012 article by Jorge Arangure, Jr.:
Twice before 1998, the Phillies had turned down the opportunity to sign Ruiz, once as a pitcher, the other time as a second baseman. Panamanian scout Allan Lewis attempted for a third time when Sal Agostinelli joined the organization in 1998 as the international scouting director.
Although Agostinelli did not see Ruiz as a prospect when he worked him out, Lewis suggested that perhaps they try him at catcher. After a few drills, Ruiz showed enough physical skills behind the plate to suggest he might adapt to the position. He was signed for $8,000 and assigned to the Dominican.
He moved his way up to the U.S. in 2000, playing for the Gulf Coast League Phillies and hitting .277/.329/.369 in 38 games. A year later, he played in A-ball, and in high-A-ball the year after that. But it wasn't until 2004, as a 25-year-old playing for the AA Reading Phillies (now the Reading Fightin Phils), that he finally broke through at the plate.
That season, Ruiz hit 17 homers in 101 games, more than he had in his entire career up to that point. He also earned the nickname of "Chooch" that year, adapted from an Panamanian expletive that is now shouted by all in the ballpark when he's at bat. (Go figure.) Even still, after a successful year on offense and defense, he played the majority of 2005 and 2006 in AAA, and his bat continued to blossom, hitting over .300 each year with a high on-base percentage, a hallmark of Ruiz's.
From 2007 through 2014, Ruiz remained the Phillies' everyday catcher, producing between 0.4 and 5.0 fWAR each season while serving as the "heart and soul" of the squad. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article said that in a poll of teammates, he was the runaway winner as the "Robin" to their Batman. He was even picked as an NL All-Star in 2012.
But as they do with all of us, old age and injuries eventually caught up to Chooch, and he lost the starting gig to Cameron Rupp in 2015. After hitting well as the backup catcher in 2016, he was dealt to the L.A. Dodgers a week before the waiver trade deadline in August for A.J. Ellis and a couple spare parts. Though the trade was controversial at the time due to Ellis' status as a clubhouse leader, Ruiz hit well in limited action before perhaps his biggest contribution of the season, a two-run homer that brought the Dodgers within one in Game Three of the NLDS.
But with Yasmani Grandal as their full-time catcher, the Dodgers found Ruiz expendable, and JDP pounced.
Here's what Dipoto said after the trade was officially announced.
Now, most of those words (though quite complimentary!) speak to Ruiz's intangibles. It's hard to quantify "veteran presence" or "outstanding leadership qualities" or even "situational awareness."
There is one thing there, however, that does stand out, and it seems promising: Chooch's ability to get on base.
For his career, Ruiz has a .352 OBP, markedly higher than his .266 average and a sign that much of his offensive value is predicated on his ability to draw walks.
Just check out this section, from Ruiz's Brooks Baseball page. Notice a pattern?
He's either "patient" or "exceptionally patient," with a "low likelihood to swing and miss" or a "league average" likelihood, and there's a lot of going with the pitch rather than a pull tendency. That's huge for a team that, as detailed by our own Jake Mailhot, was the most shifted-against team in baseball history in 2016.
Of course, it's also important to look at what went wrong during Ruiz's 2015 season, when his wRC+ was a miserable 60, only marginally better than the 2015 iteration of Zunino (47). Check this out:
Yes, Ruiz is certainly a patient hitter, and part of the way that this manifests itself is through hitting to the opposite field. Yet in 2015, he took this to the extreme, with pull/oppo numbers way out of line with his career stats. Unsurprisingly, he coupled this with his worst hard-hit percentage of his career, at a measly 15.9%.
But that was a while ago, and this past season, Ruiz rebounded in a big way, with his best hard-hit percentage since his All-Star season in 2012 (33.9%) and a spray chart much more in line with his career. Below you can see his 2015 spray chart on the left and 2016 on the right.
There's a pretty clear difference, especially in the outfield - that cluster of line drives & fly balls to right field is much more spread out, with many more ground balls to the left side as well.
This return to patience also showed itself in his swing percentages, as he posted a career-low swing% and his lowest O-Swing% (percentage of pitches one swings at outside the strike zone) since 2008. Pitchers didn't seem to react, however, throwing him the fewest pitches inside the strike zone of his career - by a lot (49.4%, compared to a 52.5% lifetime rate).
The above section is certainly encouraging, as a catcher whose game relies on plate discipline and strong defense figures to age well, even going into his age-38 season.
That said, Ruiz will certainly have to adapt next season, as pitchers won't continue to throw him balls if he's going to keep taking them. He'll have to swing at more pitches and make sure he's pulling enough pitches to maintain his power (which is mostly doubles power - he has just 68 career dingers).
But for a cost of $4.5 million and a reliever that Scott Servais seemed to forget about last season, Ruiz seems likely to be worth it, and his ability to mentor Mike Zunino will also come in handy.
Let's hope that Jerry can keep finding more players like Ruiz to plug-n-play this offseason, and let's also hope that come April, there's one sound we hear a lot in Safeco Field: