Fantasy owners have grown accustomed to plucking surprise fantasy studs off the waiver wire. This year, it was someone like Jean Segura, Josh Donaldson or Michael Cuddyer. On the pitching side, owners fought over guys such as Hisashi Iwakuma and Jose Fernandez. In 2012, though, one of the top waiver wire superstars was veteran Carlos Ruiz.
The Phillies’ catcher was the fourth-ranked catcher in fantasy baseball in 2012. Seemingly out of nowhere, he compiled a .398 wOBA with 16 home runs, and his mere 421 plate appearances was the only thing really keeping him from accruing more value. He was a solid fantasy contributor across the board, minus the obvious dearth of stolen bases.
Of course, the hammer dropped after the season when Ruiz tested positive (for the second time) for a banned stimulant. Ruiz reportedly used Adderall, and because the first positive test for a stimulant is institutionally swept under the rug, it follows that Ruiz had been a regular user of the banned stimulant. Of course, it’s impossible to say how long and exactly when he used. At best, we can safely speculate that it wasn’t a one-time deal and it was during the 2012 season.
The 25-game suspension certainly played a factor in his depressed draft stock heading into the 2013 season, but more importantly, fantasy owners didn’t know what to expect from the 34-year-old catcher. Was his season aided by a banned stimulant, or was his breakout season a harbinger for things to come?
It’s important to remember that Carlos Ruiz hit .283/.371/.383 in 2011 and .302/.400/.447 in 2010. The veteran had shown some skill at the plate in previous seasons, so it’s not as if the high average and high on-base percentage were blips on the radar. Instead, the real issue was the power spike in 2012. I’ve always been someone who has been skeptical of how much performance-enhancing drugs — steroids, amphetamines, or whatever — actually help on-the-field production. However, when I see outliers that coincide with a year supposedly fueled by PEDs, it causes one to reflect on that stance.
After never hitting double-digit home runs in any of his six previous major-league campaigns, Carlos Ruiz crushed 16 long balls in 2012 and posted his first .200+ ISO season. That’s the awkward blip on the radar in the above graph.
So, really, the focus centered on Ruiz’s performance this year. How would he do in his first season following the stimulant suspension? One can make a safe assumption that he’s likely not using anymore, as that would be monumentally unintelligent for him and his baseball career.
As seen in the graph above, the Panama native saw his power decrease dramatically. His .100 ISO in 2013 was his lowest power output since the 2008 season, and it was actually the third-worst of any catcher who accumulated at least 300 plate appearances this year. Only Chris Stewart and Jose Molina hit for less power than Ruiz, and this is a year after he was a top-five catcher in ISO.
It’s impossible to know how much of that massive decline was due to age, random variance, or the use (and subsequent non-use) of banned stimulants. All we know is Ruiz’s offensive production dropped off the map after his breakout season. His wOBA dropped to .303, and his drop in BABIP from .339 to .291 helped account for his drop in batting average to .268 this season.
In fact, his skills seemingly degraded across the board. His walk rate dropped to a career-low 5.3%, his power and batting average dropped (as discussed), he’s becoming more of a free-swinging contact hitter as he’s aging as well. Those are all bad signs for his potential 2014 production.
The sad thing is that despite those significant downturns, he’s still a fringe catcher in deeper leagues and is certainly a candidate to be drafted in two-catcher leagues. He was the 26th-ranked catcher in ESPN leagues, but keep in mind that he still ranked higher than guys like Miguel Montero, J.P. Arencibia and Devin Mesoraco. That’s not exciting — and not someone that I’ll be targeting next spring, even in my two-catcher league — but we’re not talking about someone who stumbled into the Death Valley of fantasy relevance. Perhaps he’s walking on the edges, but I don’t think he’s fully stepped into the valley.
For fantasy baseball purposes, though, the biggest concern may not be his dramatic power skid. Instead, owners should be more worried about the decreased walk rate and his increased swing rate the last couple of seasons. If that continues, he’ll be much more BABIP dependent and won’t offer as much value in OBP leagues. The best-case scenario seems to be a replication of his 2010-2011 seasons, but unfortunately, his recently plate discipline trends have been moving away from that type of production.
Not to mention he’ll be a 35-year-old catcher next year and is a free agent, so he’s not guaranteed a starting role. Given his abilities behind the plate, however, he’s a pretty good bet to get plate appearances next year, if not simply return to Philadelphia in the same role.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).