Keibert Ruiz: you know him, you love him. The Nats stud 23-year-old catcher has been one of very few bright spots in arguably the most abysmal season in Washington Nationals history thus far. Acquired as the headlining prospect in the Max Scherzer and Trea Turner deal, Ruiz immediately became Washington’s top prospect and has done nothing but impress since he arrived full-time at the Major League level.
On the season, Ruiz is batting .266/.331/.390 with a .703 OPS. Among catchers with at least 100 PA, Ruiz is 9th in batting average + OBP, 12th in fWAR at 1.0, and 14th in wRC+ at 99. He also has a 105 OPS+. Pretty modest for a 23-year-old playing his first full season in the Majors with so much room to get even better. But most impressively at the plate, Ruiz has the lowest K% of any catcher: just 8.8%, with the next closest being Toronto’s Alejandro Kirk at 10.1%. The guy just makes contact at an absurd rate from both sides of the plate. He has also gotten massively unlucky at the plate this season. Like, one of the unluckiest hitters in the league: posting a .314 wOBA compared to an xwOBA of .375. While the power isn’t there just yet, that’s completely fine and not even close to unheard of for top prospects getting acclimated to the Show. We’ve at least seen some of the flashes and Ruiz has no issue getting his doubles.
Now let’s talk about Keibert behind the plate. Among all qualified catchers, he leads the league in runners caught stealing with 11 and is 5th in Def rating + 6th in framing. The point I’m trying to make here is that this guy is pretty good at baseball and has so much potential to get even better. He’s Him. Himothy, even.
However, Ruiz is only projected to play 104 games this season because the Nats insist on playing the Nats other young catcher, Riley Adams, nearly every other day. Not only is a 23-year-old catcher only starting 104 games absurd, but it’s absurd in the fact that there is a clear difference in talent, and that starts with who each of these guys were acquired for. Ruiz was a top 15 prospect in all of MLB and was acquired for two superstars while Adams was acquired for Brad Hand. It also shows on the field. Adams is slashing .217/.289/.362 with a .652 OPS and 88 OPS+ on the season, and among all catchers with at least 50 PA, he is 28th in wRC+, 29th in batting average, 26th in OBP, and 45th in fWAR at -0.4 (yikes).
Not only that, but among all catchers with at least 100 innings behind the plate this season, Adams is DEAD LAST in Def rating at -4.7. He’s also the 4th worst framer in the league among catchers with 100+ innings. Again, it’s quite clear who the starting catcher is and who the backup is. Sure, Ruiz is still getting more playing time behind the dish with 386.1 innings compared to Adams 172.2. However, Adams is still starting way too much for what he’s projected to be: a backup catcher.
Ruiz has now sat 3 times in the last 5 games in favor of Adams when the split should really be Ruiz 4 out of every 5 days. Again, he’s 23 years old, his legs can handle the innings, but the Nats are acting like he’s in his 30s and needs to be spelled back there every other day. I guess that’s what the organization defaults to when they’re so used to having two guys in their mid 30s platooning behind the plate for a decade.
I understand wanting to get another young catcher some playing time in a season that essentially doesn’t matter standings-wise, but the issue is that it’s at the expense of a young catcher that has legitimate all-star potential. These at bats and reps against MLB pitching are incredibly important for him in his development and reaching that potential, but giving him multiple days off in a week is limiting that crucial experience.
If the Nats insist on keeping Ruiz’s legs fresh and not starting him too many games behind the plate, they at least need to DH him on games that Adams is back there and sit Nelson Cruz. Cruz is 42 years old, will only be on the team for 1 more month, and is not essential to the team’s future whatsoever. Keibert Ruiz is. The issue is that they want to keep Cruz’s hot bat in the lineup to put on this façade to the fans that they’re trying to win (even though nearly every indication points to them blatantly tanking) and bring his trade value up for a better return at the deadline.
Hopefully when Cruz is traded it will open up more opportunity to get Ruiz’s bat in the lineup, but this should honestly be starting now. Keibert Ruiz is arguably the most important player in the Nats entire system that needs to hit his potential in order to consider the rebuild a success, but the constant games off is detrimental to him reaching that all-star potential. The Nats seriously need to change their approach when it comes to handling of prospects, and this situation is only the latest.