Keibert Ruiz arrives at Nationals spring training with new confidence


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the catchers at Washington Nationals camp chatted during blocking drills earlier this week, Keibert Ruiz stayed locked in on home plate. He stood on the side to get a good view out in front of the plate, keeping his back turned to the pitching machine. He rarely spoke with the others, but occasionally flashed a smile.

Then, when it was his turn, Ruiz was suddenly the focus. The other catchers halted their conversations to watch his technique. Moments later, he cheered on Israel Pineda when he made a strong stop, and gave Pineda some advice.

“He’s got a lot more confidence and you can see it,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s walking around a little bit more like, ‘Hey, I belong here. This is kind of my team.’ He’s actually taking it upon himself to talk to some of the young catchers about some of the things we do, some of the things we’ve learned. It’s been a lot of fun to watch him communicate like that.”

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At times last season, Ruiz said it was hard to balance managing a staff and game-calling while also working on hitting. A year of experience certainly will help, though he joked that it’s never easy. Communication will be important this season with a young staff and the introduction of pitch clocks. But Ruiz, a natural introvert, hopes that his increased leadership will allow Nationals pitchers to develop the same level of assurance that he feels entering this year.

Behind the plate, Ruiz has been more vocal with pitchers so far in camp. He’s also expected to take a bigger role in calling games this year. On Friday, starter Cade Cavalli yelled, ‘All you, Keib.’ during a bullpen session to give Ruiz the opportunity to work on pitch sequencing.

“I wasn’t used to doing that in the minor leagues,” Ruiz said. “A lot of responsibility. But, like I said, I just learned from last year and we keep going, keep doing my best and I feel that last year gave me a lot of confidence for this year.”

Ruiz, 24, was acquired in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade in 2021 along with pitcher Josiah Gray as Washington pivoted to a rebuild. Now, Ruiz is looking to become a more complete player in his second full season.

Last year, Ruiz hit .251 with seven homers, 36 RBI and an 95 OPS+ (league average is around 100). He threw out 20 base runners, tied for third in the majors, even after a testicular contusion cut his season short. After the season ended, Ruiz went back to Venezuela to spend three months with his family before returning to the United States for spring training. Ruiz was able to reflect on his season, his areas of strength and improvement.

Ruiz, a switch hitter, has always shown strong bat-to-ball skills; it’s what made him a top prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers system and a coveted part of the trade. but last year, his pitch selection could have been better; he swung at hittable pitches, but they weren’t always the right pitches to swing at. Now, he’s focused on swinging at pitches in his sweet spots.

Pitch selection, coupled with swing adjustments made this offseason on both sides of the plate, has Ruiz believing he’ll show more of the power many expected a year ago. Ruiz thinks using his legs more will generate power, but Martinez doesn’t want Ruiz focused too heavily on homers. Instead, he wants him to drive the ball gap to gap.

Hitting coach Darnell Coles mentioned a few other tweaks to Ruiz’s swing — from the left side, Ruiz is trying to rotate less when he loads and stand upright to see the baseball. Ruiz’s focus on the right side is maintaining a narrower base to generate more power. In both cases, the hope is that the mechanical changes will give his hands a quicker path to the baseball.

“In Keibert’s case, when he starts to rotate, he tends to chase below the zone, especially early in counts — breaking balls, change-ups, that sort of thing,” Coles said. “Or you see a lot of groundballs to second base from his left hand side … He’s one of the best in baseball, hitting the ball up the middle, the other way. And so long as he can get a position to see the ball and then react to what he sees, he’ll make a lot of good decisions.”

As he reflected on last season, Ruiz said he was most proud of being able to prove he could stay in the big leagues for a full year. But he’s expecting more from himself this year.

“I know I can do better than that, but just to stay in the big leagues for a full year (is an accomplishment),” Ruiz said. “But I don’t want to think about last year. We’re in 2023. We just gotta get focused on this season.”

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