The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Keibert Ruiz is good at making contact. Maybe too good.

Keibert Ruiz has been productive this season but is still looking for the power he displayed in the minors. (David Zalubowski/AP)

MILWAUKEE — One of Keibert Ruiz’s biggest problems could easily sound like an enviable gift. He is so good at making contact, so consistent at what others spend years trying to master but never can, that he sometimes wishes he would just swing and miss, giving him a shot at a better pitch later in an at-bat. And despite how it may seem, this is not a bit to mess with those less inclined to hit a 97-mph fastball or a biting curve. It’s the true plight of a catcher both thriving and figuring it out.

Take Ruiz’s second at-bat against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, which ended with him lofting a high-and-outside change-up for a flyout to center. The root issue, of course, was not that the 23-year-old connected with a pitch well out of the strike zone in a 1-1 count. It was that he swung at it in the first place and was able to reach it.

So far in 2022, only 32 players have a better contact rate than Ruiz’s 83.5 percent — and only seven have a higher contact rate on pitches in the zone (minimum 120 plate appearances). But he and the Washington Nationals’ coaches feel that better pitch selection could unlock more power in his first full major league season.

“His contact ability is only a detriment because it will keep him from getting off his ‘A’ swing,” hitting coach Darnell Coles said Sunday morning, a few hours before Ruiz batted second for the first time this year. “I say that I wish he could sometimes swing over a ball he knows he doesn’t want to hit early in counts, but that’s obviously very hard to do in the moment. So it really comes down to picking the right pitches to attack. We’re getting there.”

Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross to start minor league rehab assignments Tuesday

Ruiz enters the week with nine doubles, 10 walks, a .288 average, a .351 on-base percentage and a .390 slugging percentage. His offensive peers are some of the game’s best hitting catchers — Willson Contreras, Gary Sánchez, Salvador Perez — plus Daulton Varsho and Alejandro Kirk. Ruiz’s one homer, though, falls short of what Washington expected when it dealt for him in July.

He hit 21 homers in 72 Class AAA games in the Nationals’ and Los Angeles Dodgers’ systems in 2021. This week, Trea Turner, the star Ruiz was essentially swapped for, returns to D.C. for a three-game series with the Dodgers, making it a great time for Ruiz to pop one or two out of Nationals Park. At the least, he could trigger a few “Nationals won the trade” jokes. There has been so little for the home crowd to cheer about this spring; the Nationals (15-28) have a 5-15 record in their stadium.

“Earlier in the season, I was putting some pressure on myself to do damage with home runs,” Ruiz, a switch hitter, said over the weekend. “When I do that, it messes with my mechanics and my swing is not good. Right now, my mechanics are in a good place. That’s why I’m not worried about the power. I think it will come if I continue how I am.”

Svrluga: The Nationals aren’t just bad. They’re hard to watch.

After Ruiz reached in nine of 10 plate appearances, Manager Dave Martinez moved him in front of Juan Soto in the Nationals’ order Sunday. Martinez’s logic was simple: The Nationals want Soto to hit with more runners on base, and Ruiz seemed most likely to provide that. He already has nine walks in May after finishing April with one. He also has struck out less often than all but six players on the year (again, minimum 120 plate appearances).

Asked about Ruiz’s recent production, Coles chose a different angle. Yes, he has been impressed with Ruiz’s growth and adjustments in the early going. But what stands out most is how he has juggled many duties.

“With a catcher, and especially a young catcher, there’s just so much going on day to day,” Coles explained. “He has alleviated a good amount of head movement, which has improved his swing and allowed him to get in the right hitting position on time. That will also help him be more direct to the ball and lay his ‘A’ swing out as many times a game as he can. For me, though, I’m super impressed with the way he’s organizing his work.

“He’s learning a new pitching staff, watching video on opponents, talking with the pitching coach, the bullpen catchers, that night’s starter, then going to a pregame scouting meeting, then coming into the cage to hit with me. If you’re rushing, it will show in the box. He has slowed everything down.”

Sports teams love crypto. What happens when their sponsor strikes out?

Coles and Ruiz have whittled their routine to a 10- to 12-minute process. That leaves just enough seconds for soft tosses from Coles, swings off the tee, reps against the high-velocity pitching machine and a few rounds of traditional batting practice. Then Ruiz can slip from the cage and keep preparing to catch.

The goal in those sessions is to get Ruiz’s swing as close to game speed as possible. Coles and Ruiz agree anywhere between 80 and 85 percent effort is the sweet spot. When pressed on Ruiz’s lack of power, Coles looked inward, saying he’s still figuring out how to get Ruiz ready in a condensed window. The good news is that, in the bigger picture, there is no reason to hurry.

“I just have to control everything a bit more,” Ruiz said. “What I swing at, how I swing at it … and eliminate the weak contact, you know? A few more takes and we’ll be fine.”