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Keibert Ruiz and a learning experience with Washington Nationals

Keibert Ruiz spent the final two months of 2021 getting to know his new organization.

Washington Nationals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Washington Nationals’ General Manager and President of Baseball operations Mike Rizzo described 23-year-old catcher Keibert Ruiz as the “main cog” among those in the six-player trade this past July which sent both Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for four prospects (Ruiz, right-handed pitchers Josiah Gray and Gerardo Carrillo, and outfielder Donovan Casey).

But while Gray, (one of the two major-league ready players who came to the Nationals in the deal), started off with the organization in the majors, the team sent Ruiz down to Triple-A to start his time with the club.

In 20 games and 85 plate appearances at Triple-A Rochester, Ruiz put up a .308/.365/.577 line with six doubles and five home runs (after he’d put up a .311/.381/.631 line, 18 doubles, and 16 home runs in 52 games and 231 PAs at Triple-A in the Dodgers’ system before the trade), and manager Davey Martinez talked before they called the backstop up to D.C. about the work he did with the team’s top minor league affiliate, especially on the defensive end.

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“He’s continued to progress back behind the plate,” Martinez told reporters.

“I know [bullpen coach] Henry [Blanco] has been looking at some videos and watching him, Randy [Knorr] has been doing the same thing, but the good thing is that he’s swinging the bat well, he’s learning. I talked to some of the pitchers that we brought up that actually threw to him and they said that he’s actually good back there and he understands the game, he knows what he wants to do, and he reads the scouting reports well, so I’m looking forward to getting him whenever we decide to bring him up here and see what he can do at the major league level.”

Josh Rogers, one of those pitchers who worked with Ruiz at Triple-A and again in the majors in September, credited the catcher with a lot of the success he had.

“When Keibert got there [to Rochester], it really gave me — I had a really good start with him and I just kind of built off that,” the southpaw said.

“I’m not saying that against any of the other catchers down there,” Rogers added, “but we just jelled really quickly, and it kind of kickstarted that momentum. He had a great game plan for us down there, and like I said, just kind of built on the momentum and just tried to keep it rolling.”

“I think Keibert coming over, and him catching me honestly down in Triple-A, we got on the same page quick,” he elaborated, “and the way he was calling the game for me, he really set me up for success and gave me a lot of confidence down there.”

Martinez talked after Ruiz was up in the majors for a while about the progress he saw the catcher make.

“I see Keibert getting a lot better behind the plate,” Martinez said. “A lot better. We talked about his blocking, keeping the balls in front, rolling the shoulders over instead of being flat, so the balls bounce, and I know that Henry [Blanco] has been really working with him with that, and he’s gotten a lot better.”

Most importantly, Ruiz had a chance in the last month of the season (over which he put up a .284/.348/.395 line with three doubles and two home runs in 23 games and 89 PAs) to get to know the Nationals’ pitchers in the majors like he did at Triple-A, many of whom figure in the club’s plans for 2022.

“It took a while for him to actually learn our pitchers, but he’s getting — like I said — every day he’s getting better, he’s starting to understand,” Martinez told reporters in September, noting that he’s shifted his staff around to help Ruiz and other young players on the roster learn on the job.

“This is the reason I wanted Henry [Blanco] in the dugout with our two young catchers now, and having Alex [Avila] here as well.

“Henry has done a great job in helping these guys understand pitch sequences, what to do, knowing who’s up behind a hitter, where maybe we don’t have to pitch to this guy because he’s hot, and pitch to the next guy.”

Washington Nationals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

“It’s a challenge,” Ruiz acknowledged of getting to know the staff at Triple-A Rochester and then in D.C., but it was a good learning experience.

“I got to know my pitchers, I got to know what they can do good, and they can not. I just got to keep working with them, and if we can do a better job that would be great.”

He also made strides at the plate, and finished strong, going 20 for 53 (.377/.441/.547) over the final 15 games after a relatively slow start, and Ruiz talked at the end of the season about what changed for him in his time in the Nationals’ lineup.

“I think I’m not trying to do too much,” Ruiz said.

“Before I was jumping a little bit and swinging at everything. Right now I’m just trying to focus, and swing at my pitch, until I get to two strikes. I mean, that’s what I can control, and I’m just going to keep focused on that, keep working on that and get better every day.”