When the Nationals agreed to an eight-year new contract with catcher Keibert Ruiz over the offseason, they anointed him as the arguable face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
There are clear reasons to like him, but he's far from a finished product.
Although he's not a bad baseball player, the case for Ruiz's contract extension is largely based on his potential to improve. In that respect, he's viewed very highly. Baseball America considered him the No. 11 prospect in the league entering last season.
Ruiz's best trait is his ability to make contact with pitches that he swings at. According to Baseball Savant, he ranks in the top 15 percent of the league in expected batting average, and top 2 percent in whiff rate and strikeout rate.
With that said, much of Ruiz's statistical production will leave you wondering whether he needed to be paid so much so soon, and for so long. Fifty million dollars over eight years is a plenty manageable contract, but the current version of Ruiz probably isn't worth north of $6 million per year.
Aside from showing the ability to make contact, Ruiz is graded as subpar in most areas. He doesn't hit the ball particularly hard, chases more pitches than you'd like to see, is among the slowest runners in the league, and - aside from arm strength - is considerably below average behind the plate defensively.
In truth, an argument could be made that Ruiz has regressed since reaching the big leagues. He posted a 101 wRC+ in his 22-game debut in 2021, which is slightly better than the average major league. That number dropped to 90 in his first full season, and sits at 84 entering Friday's series opener against the Mets.
Similarly, his defensive ratings have gone from middle of the road to below average across the sport. Whereas he's being asked to shoulder more weight with a younger pitching staff, most of the data suggests he's done less to maximize them. Even his caught stealing rate, which was already below 30 percent, has declined this season.
I'd argue this area is the most important aspect of Ruiz's game going forward. With such a young pitching staff, especially within the starting rotation, his ability to support and grow with them may decide the fate of the Nationals in their attempted rebuild.
In that regard, Ruiz's contributions are difficult to assess. Although advanced metrics don't favor him, pitcher performance (especially Josiah Gray) has improved considerably, even with Ruiz catching a higher share of games in comparison to Riley Adams than he had been previously. Perhaps there's something intangible, such as game-calling, that has improved.
Still, he could help himself by becoming a better pitch framer and improving his overall mobility - mostly as it relates to his "pop time" on throws from behind the plate, but also extending into his base running.
In the batter's box, step one for Ruiz is that he needs to stop swinging at so many pitches - especially pitches he can't do damage against. He swings at 4.1 percent more pitches outside the strike zone than the average big leaguer. Although he connects on a high percentage of those swings, they generally result in soft contact and easy outs - whereas he could extend his plate appearances, and likely see more "mistake pitches" by simply not swinging so often.
Luis Garcia had similar tendencies, but has cleaned them up and subsequently begun hitting the ball with more authority and striking out less frequently. If Ruiz can do the same, he could easily cement himself as one of the better catchers in the sport. Time will tell how whether this is easier said than done for Ruiz.
Ruiz's average launch angle has also regressed every season, which directly correlates with hitting more ground balls and therefore - more often than not - more outs. That may be a direct result of him swinging so much, but at could also be a philosophical error. After all, Dave Martinez and hitting coach Darnell Coles are infamously known for emphasizing making contact, as opposed to emphasizing launch angle like former hitting coach Kevin Long did.
Less is required of catchers offensively. If your catcher is one if your best hitters, it's typically a sign that your roster construction is poor. Still, Ruiz has the ability to make more progress in his development at the plate.
I firmly believe that Ruiz has the ability to become a much more productive player than he is right now. He's been steady, but he could easily become a foundational player for this team by addressing some of these outlined areas.