[ed. note - “We spent the last week looking at the starting pitchers expected to fill out the Washington Nationals’ rotation in 2023, and now we’ll look at the catchers in advance of both groups of players reporting for the start of Spring Training this week.”]
Going into the 2022 campaign, manager Davey Martinez talked at length about his young catchers, Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, and heading into the season with a pair of backstops with limited experience in the majors, after a few years with veteran receivers (like Matt Wieters, Kurt Suzuki, and then Yan Gomes) handling most/all of the catching duties for the club.
The Nationals went with Ruiz (then 23, now 24), and Riley Adams (then 25, now 26) as the catching duo in D.C., with both of them at the start of their respective big league careers, and the club in full-on reboot at all levels of the organization.
Ruiz, acquired from Los Angeles (NL) at the trade deadline in 2021, and Adams, who came over from Toronto as part of Washington’s sell-off of expiring contracts that July, played together late in ‘21, and bonded as they learned the pitchers and the Nats’ approach to catching.
“These two guys sat together a lot, and talked a lot, in the clubhouse, on the field,” Martinez said in mid-March of ‘22. “You always saw these guys together talking about handling the pitching staff and what they need to do and who we’re facing and how we can get quick outs, so I really believe that with the experience they got last year that they’re going to be fine back there.”
The manager acknowledged he had two young catchers learning on the job who needed to be coached up along the way as they took on more responsibilities and developed their own games.
“For me it’s about sticking the process, and teaching them the little things,” the Nationals’ skipper explained.
“The biggest thing for me, as I tell them all the time is, ‘As a big league catcher, you need to learn how to handle the pitching staff. That’s your No. 1 goal.’ And I said, ‘For me, you’re the captain, you’re the guys that see all. You’re at the field at a different perspective. You should know each and every hitter, that comes in that we face, and how to attack them.’ And I said, ‘It’s a process, and you’ve got to have a routine. Not every routine is the same for each guy, but you got to come up with your own routine,’ which they’ve done, and honestly, having [Catching and Strategy Coach] Henry [Blanco] with them and Henry in the dugout, he’s been great for those guys and he’s constantly communicating with those guys, and what he’s seeing and what needs to transpire after every game and whether it’s the next day or even after the game, he breaks things down what he sees, and it’s a teaching moment, it’s a learning moment, for Keibert and Riley both, but they’ve been good, and you can see that they’re getting better and better each and every day.”
As Martinez told reporters repeatedly, Ruiz and Adams were eager to learn and amenable to instruction, ideal qualities for the roles they were being asked to fill early in their respective big league careers.
“They’re very open-minded about everything,” Martinez said. “They don’t have — they listen better than they speak. As you know, Keibert doesn’t speak very often, but when he does, he — like I said — he has a plan. But they love information, and they can sit down with any one of our analytical guys and go over stuff and retain it, and they can sit down and talk to the pitchers and tell them what they see, and obviously get feedback from the pitchers on what they want to do, and they come up with a plan.
“It’s been good. With a veteran player sometimes, they’re stuck in their ways, and they see things a lot differently, and it’s harder to communicate, but I was blessed to have Suzuki, Weiters, and Yan Gomes, and those guys were definitely very veteran catchers that understood the game very well, so these guys, like I said, these guys are learning at a rapid pace, and they’re doing really well.”
Ruiz, the catcher described by Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo as the “main cog” in the return the Nats received from the Dodgers in the trade deadline deal which sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to LA in ‘21, played in 104 games in 2022 before a testicular contusion in September took him out of action for the final weeks of the 2022 campaign, finishing the year 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 1.7 fWAR, with a .992 FLD%, a 28% Caught Stealing& (CS%), (throwing out 20 out of 51 would-be base stealers), and -5 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
Adams didn’t play much as the No. 2, backing up Ruiz, and he was sent down to Triple-A to get reps at one point, (and to try to learn to play first base), but his manager said he’d liked what he’d saw from the catcher in terms of his development.
“For Riley,” Martinez said of the catcher, who had a .192/.284/.321 line at the plate in 27 games and 88 plate appearances at the time he went down in late June, “… it was tough, but it was about getting him consistent at-bats, getting him down there [to Triple-A], letting him catch every day, also play a little bit of first base, but it was more about just getting him consistent at-bats every day down there.”
“Riley has done really well,” he added.
“He’s made some big, big improvements catching, and that’s good, but it’s more about getting him out there every day catching, getting at-bats every single day, and then seeing where we’re at here in a few weeks.”
Adams dealt with a wrist injury while at Triple-A Rochester, (and ended up playing just two games at first), catching 22 times, and serving as the DH six times before he was called back up in late August.
Martinez talked late in 2022 about all of the growth he’d seen from Adams since he came from the Blue Jays.
“For me,” Martinez said, “he’s definitely improved on game-calling. Guys love throwing to him, he handles the pitchers well, his blocking has been a lot better, his throwing has been a lot better, his hitting is coming. We sent him down for a while to work on his hitting, and he learned a lot about himself and hitting.”
Adams played 48 games total in the majors (43 starts), with a .176/.245/.310 line, four doubles, and five home runs at the plate, and a .994 fld%, -6 DRS, and a 14% CS% (5 of 37) behind it.
“I’ve seen him handle pitchers very, very well,” Martinez added. “I still want him to work on his throwing with Henry [Blanco], especially his transfer. A lot of times he gets the ball and he can’t get a grip on the ball, so he has to work on that, and he [needs to be] more consistent with his hitting. I mean, we got to get him consistent, because when he hits the ball hard it comes off the bat hot. So if we can get him to be consistent — I’m not saying that he’s going to hit .280/.290 — but there is power in there, and if he can put the ball in play we might see a lot more of that power.”
Ruiz (106), Adams (44), Tres Barrera (now with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, 19), and Israel Pineda (4), handled the catching in D.C. in 2022.
The remaining three sit atop the organizational depth chart in D.C. heading into 2023, and the GM said early this winter the club was comfortable going forward with what they had behind the plate, though he left open the possibility of adding a veteran to the mix.
“I think we’re going to compete — I think in-house we have the backup catcher,” Rizzo said.
“There’s going to be a competition. That’s not going to rule out — we may do something in the offseason to obtain another candidate for a backup catcher.”
But to this point, they haven’t... so are you okay with Ruiz/Adams handling the catching in 2023? Should they/should they have added a veteran backstop to the mix? Will Ruiz play the same percentage of the games (if healthy) this coming season, or will the Nats go with Adams more often? Do you consider the catching in D.C. a weakness or a strength?