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Washington Nationals news & notes: Keibert Ruiz, CS% and more…

Notes and quotes on the Nationals’ catcher of the future... and, uh, the present...

Keibert Ruiz, acquired by the Nationals in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade with the Dodgers at the trade deadline in 2021, jumped at the opportunity to sign a long-term extension with Washington when the club made an offer last spring.

“I said yes right away!” the now-25-year-old catcher told reporters in a press conference announcing his long-term deal in March 2023.

“But we waited a little bit,” Ruiz laughed. “And I’m just happy for this moment and for everything. Just got to move forward and keep working hard.”

Anointing him the No. 1 backstop in D.C. soon after he was acquired, the Nationals threw the young backstop right into the proverbial fire, bringing him back up to the majors just a month after the deadline.

He played in 23 games late that year, after debuting as a 22-year-old with Los Angeles in ‘20 and playing six games early in ‘21 before he was traded months later.

“We brought him up early in his career,” Nationals’ GM and President of Baseball Ops Mike Rizzo told reporters in the press conference announcing the extension.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

“He was thrown into a situation where —strange city, strange organization, strange pitching staff, and I thought he handled himself remarkably last year,” the GM said. “I think that he came into this winter and this offseason, into Spring Training in more of leadership mode, even before we started talking about any type of extension and that type of thing, and it gave me the onus to really think hard about who we want to lock into these positions and to build this team around, and I think that when you get kind of the general of this team, which is the catcher, and those players up the middle, I think it’s important that those are the guys that grow into a leadership role. And I can see that for Keibert.”

“He’a really starting to become that guy back there,” Manager Davey Martinez told reporters early on in the 2023 campaign, “… and I think the pitchers are really getting to start trusting him a little bit with the fingers. But man, I love what he’s doing right now.

“He’s taking charge back there, and something that myself and [Catching and Strategy Coach] Henry [Blanco] talked to him about, ‘You got to feel like you’re the captain back there, you’ve got to take control sometimes,’ and he’s done a good job with that.”

Martinez was asked then how the relatively soft-spoken receiver handles his leadership responsibilities.

“He’s not loud, he’s very soft-spoken, but he has intention when he talks, and when he feels like he needs to talk, he will,” the skipper said.

Ruiz finished his first full season in the majors in 2022 with a .251/.313/.360 line, 22 doubles, seven home runs, 30 walks, and 50 Ks in 112 games and 433 plate appearances, over which he was worth 1.8 fWAR.

Behind the plate, he put up a .992 fld% and 28% CS%, throwing out 20 of 71 would-be base-stealers.

Ruiz struggled at the plate at the start of the 2023 campaign and his new deal in D.C.

“We’re trying to get him now to understand what he does really well, and that’s getting the ball up in the zone,” Martinez said early last season.

The backstop put up a .226/.279/.360 line with 11 doubles, nine home runs, 16 walks, and 28 Ks in 73 games and 305 PAs.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“His chase rate is still under 30%, which is really good,” Martinez said in early May, in trying to explain why he was confident the catcher would get things going with the bat.

“Now we got to get him to think about looking for the ball up. He’s a much better hitter when the ball is up [in the zone].

“All the balls low tend to be on the ground, we’re trying to get him to elevate the balls a little bit. So he’s got to start looking up. That’s the next step.

“When the ball’s up, he hits the ball really hard. So we got to get him to consistently look for the ball up, stop chasing the balls down, and the other thing is the art of hitting with guys on base. Understanding what he needs to do, understanding what the pitcher is trying to do, sometimes maybe you got to work better counts to get the pitch you want to do. But don’t go up there right away, I know you want to be aggressive, but don’t go up there right away and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to swing at the first pitch and try to drive in the run.’

“No, hey, be patient, wait for a good pitch, and try to get your best swing off when you get that pitch. And that’s something that we got to work on, not just with him but with all our young guys.

“Because they get up there and want to be overly aggressive with guys on base, and sometimes that first pitch ain’t always the best one, could be the second one. But just be ready to hit, understand who you are, and what you hit hard, and get that good pitch to hit.

“But I think his at-bats have been good. I’ve said this before, I watch his swings, and he’s lining out quite a bit and had nothing to to show for it.”

“It’s hard to tell a kid, ‘Don’t change anything,’ when they’re not getting any hits, because the pressure builds up, they all want the ball to drop every time they swing, and it doesn’t necessarily happen like that.”

Defensively, Keibert struggled as well, overall, with eight passed balls (up from four in 2022), a .991 fld% on the year, and 119 stolen bases in 140 attempts (15% CS%).

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

[ed. note - “Acknowledgement here that bigger bases and new rules MLB put in place this past season probably (definitely?) played some role in the stark difference ... but likely was not the whole story.”]

“Sometimes just trying to be too quick,” Ruiz said of his issues with opposing team running on him (and the Nats’ starters), as quoted by Washington Post writer Andrew Golden last July, after throwing out just three of the first 52 runners who tried to steal a base on him.

“Trying to do too much instead of, if they get a good jump, trying to catch and throw. If he’s safe, he’s safe. But that’s what I can’t control.”

While things picked up at the plate in the second half of 2023, with Ruiz putting up a solid .300/.342/.467 line, 13 doubles, nine homers, 15 walks, and 30 Ks over 63 games and 257 PAs after the All-Star Break.

“He’s been awesome,” Martinez said once things picked up for the catcher at the plate.

“He’s getting the ball in the strike zone, and when he does that he’s hitting the ball really hard. I’ve said this all year long, he’s got great bat-to-ball skills, but he needs to focus on getting the ball in the zone, and when he does that, the ball comes off his bat really hot.”

“He’s been playing well, both sides,” Martinez said in August.

“His defense has been really good, he’s starting to swing the bat like we know he can, so he’s been awesome.”

Martinez also noted that Ruiz was doing a lot better about not letting his struggles at the plate affect his overall game.

“Absolutely, that’s just learning the game, learning yourself,” the manager said.

“We talk about that all of the time: ‘Hey, just take care of the now.’ And he’s been doing really good with that.”

How did Ruiz find consistency at the plate?

“He’s learned a lot,” Martinez said.

“His routine. Just going out and playing and like I said, taking care of the now, but he’s done really well. I’ve been impressed by how well he’s handled our pitching staff while he’s bounced back. I’ve asked him to do different things, we’ve asked him to DH. He’s a gamer, he wants to play, he wants to play every day, and he’s going to do everything he can to help us win.”

Martinez did note that one part of his game plays off the other when it comes to Ruiz being consistent overall.

“When he starts swinging the bat the way he swings, his game elevates, it really does. So, I’m happy for him. Like I said, he’s going to be here for a long time. And he’s getting better.”

“He’s engaged, he’s engaged every game no matter what. He knows he has to separate the offense from catching, and he’s got to call games, that’s what catchers do.”

At the 2023 Winter Meetings earlier this month, GM Mike Rizzo talked about the catcher’s defensive struggles and Ruiz’s ‘23 season overall.

Chicago White Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

“I think the dropoff — he caught about as many games as just about anybody in the big leagues this year, so I think that it’s a taxing position,” Rizzo began. “he’s catching a young group of pitchers for the most part that he has very little experience with, so it’s a tough, grinding position that you really have to keep your finger on the pulse of your total game defensively, offensively, and that type of thing. He went through a stretch there defensively he was terrific, and then his offense dropped off a little bit, and then when his offense got a little bit better, his defense might have dropped off a bit, but we’ve got a few fundamental things that he’s going to work on, I think he’s going to get closer to home plate, I think it’s going to help his framing, I think that he’s really working hard with Henry [Blanco] on the transfer glove to hand to second base and his accuracy.

“I think that the good thing about him is he doesn’t want to be good, he wants to be great, and I think that attitude helps.”