The Chooch Cometh: Ten Days Out, What Can Carlos Ruiz's Return Mean to Phillies?

The Chooch Cometh: Ten Days Out, What Can Carlos Ruiz's Return Mean to Phillies?

Guest post by Matt Hammond

Erik Kratz and Humberto Quintero have combined to hit .167/.164/.278 so far this season, with each of those being in the bottom four in baseball among catchers, and the OBP being dead-last.

And so, Carlos Ruiz becomes the Phillies early-season white knight, scheduled to ride in 10 games and 10 days from now, when his 25-game suspension ends – even though he’s presumed to be less than he was last season.

There’s good reason for the sentiment, whether he's who he was last year or before.

While Ruiz enjoyed a much-improved power stroke last season, in the rest of his game, he was pretty much the same player, which is to say a good one.

The uptick in his .325 average (.042) is almost perfectly accounted for by a bump in his batting average on balls in play (.031), often a measure of luck.

For the Phillies, Ruiz's .281 previous three-year average would be third-best among qualifying hitters on the team this season, behind Michael Young (.346) and Chase Utley (.283).

That lends itself to the lineup shuffle they need, letting Jimmy Rollins reassume lead-off duties, Young to jump to No. 2 and Ruiz to slide in behind Ryan Howard.

There’s more to blame for the Phillies 20th in baseball 50 runs scored so far, but Ben Revere’s .194/.242/.194 line is certainly among them. And while Revere may improve without leadoff-man pressure, even if he didn’t, his current slash line would make for just under the big-league
average for eight-hole hitters.

With Young, if his .884 OPS holds up, great. If not, his average, on-base percentage and overall instincts – who he really is, anyway – make him a perfect fit in the two-hole, considered along with the three-hole where your best hitter belongs.

They'll likely miss some power. Ruiz's 2012 home run rate was about that of Matt Weiters, whose 23 bombs were second among catchers, and his .935 OPS was just below Buster Posey’s best in the bigs. The Phillies rank 19th in baseball in home runs (13) and extra-base hits (40) through 15 games.

Ruiz also caught a career-high 34.0 percent of base stealers last year.

But even then, there’s upside. Or at the very least, status quo from Kratz.

The take in Ruiz’s 2012 was plate patience, seen in his career-low walk rate (6.9%) and near-career-high strikeout rate (11.9%), both notably worse than in 2011.

Maybe this year he reverts back to old tendencies and walks, and helps boost the team’s lowly .291 OBP and consequent scoring slumps. And if Ruiz rekindles his .847 OPS from 2010, he’d fall in line with the
five-hole hitting Howard cozied up to from 2007-2009, when the Phillies team five-hole OPS ranked 2nd in the NL each year, and when Howard was in the last of his home run-hitting prime.

Worst-case scenario: Ruiz's three-year prior OPS reemerges, and the Phillies five-hole hitting is precisely that of the Cardinals’ last year (10th in MLB), and 11th in the bigs so far.

Best-case scenario: Delmon Young rakes when he comes back from arthroscopic ankle surgery in early-to-mid May, lining up Ruiz to be one of the strongest seven-hole hitters in baseball.

As for his ability to nab base-stealers: Ruiz’s pre-2012 three-year caught stealing rate (25.9%) isn’t that far off from Kratz’s this year (28.6%) and would rank about average in baseball in 2013.

Hopefully we’re past the whole, “Erik Kratz Can’t Call A Game!” thing, especially with the rotation having already come around of late. (And the numbers showing that, at times, the staff had a better ERA with Kratz than Ruiz last year.)

Still, there’s something to be said for comfort, and Ruiz is just that for the Phillies $64.5 million top three starters – however intangible that may be.

As for what can be measured: don’t assume Ruiz can’t get or doesn’t ask for an exemption to use amphetamines again, what may or may not have fueled his surge.

You'd understand why he may be denied; it would make for a bad look from the league office to give a repeat drug policy offender the green light afterward. But such exemptions are apparently kinda easy to come by.

Ruiz has already been asked about such things, and he’s kept mum. We’ll see April 28.

What we already know: we'll see a valuable player and fan favorite rejoin a team that needs him.

Matt Hammond is the Phillies Insider and Update Anchor for 97.3 ESPN in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter here.

Ex-Penn State TE Brent Wilkerson gets probation for indecent assault

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Ex-Penn State TE Brent Wilkerson gets probation for indecent assault

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A former Penn State football player will serve five years' probation and register as a sex offender after pleading guilty to indecent assault.

Twenty-two-year-old Brent Wilkerson was sentenced Tuesday after pleading guilty in connection with a February outing to several bars with a young woman and others.

Police say Wilkerson was drunk but the woman was sober when he insisted on making sure she got home safe.

The woman tells police Wilkerson pushed her upstairs to her bedroom where he fell asleep. The woman says she went to bed later and woke up to find Wilkerson kissing and fondling her and fondling himself. He later apologized in a text message.

Wilkerson was kicked off the team in March. Court records say he lives in Clinton, Maryland.

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know:

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better on Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them on Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady on Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since August 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.