Josh Rogers recalled a game last year, when he was pitching for Class AAA Rochester. It was the sixth inning. He was in a jam. Then catcher Keibert Ruiz walked to the mound and showed a side of himself that Rogers hadn’t seen.
Ruiz is naturally introverted. Often, while his teammates are chatting or dancing in the back of the clubhouse, the 23-year-old walks through the room quietly with a bat in his hand or sits at the chair in his locker while using his phone. His demeanor stems from a lesson he said his dad taught him from a young age: Don’t talk much — let your glove and bat do the speaking. Now, though, Ruiz, competitive and prepared, is slowly finding his voice as a young player with the Washington Nationals.
Ruiz, 23, and backup catcher Riley Adams, 25, are early in their careers, which puts the Nationals in an unfamiliar position. In recent years, the team has opted for veterans behind the plate, a list that has included Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Alex Avila and Matt Wieters. Ruiz was the youngest Opening Day starting catcher for Washington since 23-year-old Wilson Ramos was behind the plate in 2011.
Manager Dave Martinez said Washington is focused on teaching its young catchers the little things and helping them develop routines before and during games. The process of learning to handle a pitching staff — a catcher’s top priority, Martinez said — takes time.
The shortened spring training meant Ruiz couldn’t spend nearly as much time as usual developing chemistry with the pitchers, especially the ones who joined later in the season.
“The last couple of weeks were better,” he said. “I’ve been feeling more comfortable behind the plate, knowing more of the pitchers. But it’s been good so far. Obviously we can get better, but we are in that process.”
Martinez credited Ruiz and Adams for their communication styles, which includes sitting with pitchers during games and going through the game plan. Ruiz also earned praise from pitchers on the roster, including Rogers and Josiah Gray.
Gray, who came over with Ruiz as part of the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal last summer, has known the catcher since their time in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. Their friendship off the field, Gray said, improves the trust they have in each other on it.
“On the field, that’s something you want to rely on so you have trust in him in the pitch-calling and situations and things like that,” Gray said. “So he’s been great. I’m glad I get to throw to him, and I’m glad we get to grow together being young guys on this team.”
Reliever Steve Cishek didn’t meet Ruiz until spring training. Ruiz peppered him with questions ahead of his first live batting practice session, asking where Cishek wanted him to set up behind the plate and how he likes to attack hitters.
“At this level, being that young and being a catcher, like a commander on the field, he’s very mature,” Cishek said. “I think he’s ahead of the game for his age.”
Cishek, like Ruiz, is introverted and said it took time for him to get comfortable in the clubhouse. He expects Ruiz to grow into his voice as he learns.
“I think he’s quiet everywhere, but I think we’re trying to get him to be more — show a little bit more energy on the field,” said Henry Blanco, Washington’s catching and strategy coach. “As a catcher, you need to have that. Sometimes you need to let the pitcher know, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ [Or,] ‘Do this, infielders.’ ”
Blanco has worked closely with Ruiz since last season and already has seen progress. Last year, he wanted him to shorten his arm path on throws to second base and work to set up earlier, something that comes with familiarity with the pitching staff. This season, he leads the majors in runners thrown out.
Blanco was quick to praise Ruiz’s willingness to learn, ask questions and take feedback. With video work before games and more experience calling games, Blanco expects Ruiz to continue to improve — which, in turn, will elevate the pitching staff.
As for his voice, Blanco believes that will come in time, too. He doesn’t want Ruiz to hold back.
“I think that the thing for him [is], I’m not saying that he’s scared, but he’s kind of shy on the field, [thinking] that he probably said the wrong stuff,” Blanco said. “I said: ‘Man, you, as a catcher, we’re going to say the right stuff; we’re going to say the wrong stuff. So, I mean, just let it out and make sure those guys listen to you. Because you’re the man. On the field, you are the man. You’re the boss. You make decisions.’ … He’s slowly getting there.”