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40 in 40: Carlos Ruiz

What exactly can a 38-year-old catcher bring to the Seattle Mariners?

Cincinnati Reds v Philadelphia Phillies, Game 1 Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

In November of 2016 the Seattle Mariners willingly traded for a 38-year-old catcher. Let’s just get that out of the way right now, shall we? Carlos Ruiz’s age will be a looming specter over the duration of the 2017 season, and there isn’t a great way to assess this man who is an utter anomaly. In fairness, all major league baseball players are anomalies; those drafted out of college have a 10.5% chance of playing for an MLB club, while those drafted out of high school have a mere 0.5% chance. However, within this field of professional anomalies, Ruiz remains unique. When he was seven, following the deaths of his grandmother and his father in a tragic two week stretch, he assured his mother he would become a professional baseball player to support his family. In the meantime, starting at age 10, he went to work in the fields, harvesting coffee beans in the morning and carrying crates of tomatoes in the afternoon. In 1998 the Philadelphia Phillies signed him for $8,000 and he traveled to the Dominican Republic to train at the Phillies Baseball Academy.

Since 1955 there have been 79 Panamanians who have played in the MLB. Of those 79, 55 were position players, and of those 55 only five were catchers. Yet Ruiz wasn’t even supposed to be a catcher. He was signed as a second basemen but after starting at the Phillies academy they transitioned him to catcher because, as the Phillies international head scout claimed, he lacked the “quickness” for second base but had a promising swing and arm. His time at the academy challenged him, and the change in positions left Ruiz feeling “like a 10-year-old” among the other prospects. He slowly worked his way through the Phillies minor league system until he made his major league debut in 2006, at the age of 26.

Ruiz’s appearance in the major leagues was largely unheralded, but by 2007 he was the Phillies starting catcher with a 1.4 fWAR and an 84 wRC+. The following season he struggled, with a wRC+ that sank 20 points and a lonely 0.4 Fwar. It has thus far been the second-worst season of his career, yet also marks the point when Ruiz became beloved by the Phillies fanbase for his role in the team’s World Series victory. Teammates, coaches, and fans alike refer to him as “Chooch,” a nickname that evolved from the Panamanian swear “chucha,” which he uttered constantly during a miserable spring in 2004. It was this name that rang throughout the stands of Citizens Bank Park when Chooch hit the first walk-off infield single in MLB playoff history in Game 3 of the World Series. Ruiz would go on to hit 255/.377/.425 in 53 playoff games, including a two run, pinch hit home run to pull the Dodgers within one of the Nationals during last year’s NLDS Game 3. Nine years after that first World Series victory and here we are, hoping that 2017 brings another opportunity for Chooch to shine in the playoffs.

So what does the 2017 season hold for a backup catcher, regarded by time and analysts alike as past his prime? The excitement of Ruiz, if you’re looking to be excited about a 38-year-old catcher, is centered entirely around his intangibles. I know that’s entirely the opposite of what this blog is founded upon but let’s face it: if you’re going to sign a man nearing his fourth decade, at one of the most physically exhaustive positions in baseball, you need to be looking for something in addition to whatever physical abilities may still remain. This is where Ruiz really shines, with impossible-to-quantify claims of “good leadership,” and a positive “clubhouse/veteran preference.” If the player and coach testimonials of Ruiz cannot convince you to believe in the relative import of these kinds of intangibles, nothing will.

Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, was one of many players to sing Ruiz’s praises following Chooch’s August trade to the Dodgers

"Carlos was such an important part to my growth as a pitcher. His preparation and instinct as a catcher set him apart as one of the best and I feel fortunate to have pitched with him while we were teammates in Philadelphia. His positive clubhouse personality was infectious and he had great respect for the Phillies organization and the fans.'"

Roy Halladay, a Cy Young winner who pitched a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter with Ruiz behind the dish, had this to say about his long-time catcher

“Chooch was the little engine that could for a team loaded with big names, but no player was more valuable to the team as a whole than Carlos! He was so humble and grateful, you couldn't help but just want to do anything for him including win! He flawlessly handled one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled and was just as important offensively, as well. It was nothing short of miraculous that he could handle so many different personalities and approaches on a day-to-day basis the way that he did. He was the best catcher I've ever thrown to and, in my opinion, the best catcher in baseball in the years I was with him.”

And if you’re looking for more Mariners-relevant testimony, former M’s pitcher Jamie Moyer echoed Hamels and Halladay’s sentiments: “Carlos not only was- and is- a good teammate, he learned how to become the leader he needed to be behind the plate running a pitching staff.”

In many ways we can think of Ruiz as Chris Iannetta 2.0; he’s in Seattle to be Mike Zunino insurance, and a more trustworthy backup than Jesus Sucre. Steamer projects him to have approximately 180 PAs this season, and to contribute a mere 0.8 fWAR. If all goes well he’ll be a perfectly innocuous backup catcher and, if things finally come together for Zunino, mostly superfluous. However, if you’ll allow me some pie-in-the-sky theorizing, it’s likely that Ruiz’s true value for the 2017 Mariners will transcend any stat lines that Fangraphs can compile. So who knows? Ruiz has caught four career no-hitters, tied with Jason Varitek for most ever by a catcher; there’s a chance he could do it again this season. And if you’re looking for a new player to root for in this upcoming season, I can think of few more compelling stories than that of Carlos Ruiz.