MIAMI - This is the time of year when folks with nothing better to do begin to talk about things like most valuable players.
In normal seasons, such debates do not involve the No. 8 hitter in a team's lineup. But this has not been a normal year for the injury-ravaged Phillies. And when you really break down the value that each of their hitters and pitchers have contributed to the team, it becomes hard to overlook the contributions of one Carlos Ruiz.
As recently as Tuesday, the 31-year-old catcher was hitting .300, giving him a realistic chance of becoming just the second regular Phillies catcher since 1954 to finish the season at or above the mark (minimum 400 plate appearances). The only catcher to do it is Mike Lieberthal, who hit .313 in 2003 and .300 in 1999. In 1954, Smokey Burgess hit .368 in 392 plate appearances.
Ruiz entered last nightleading the Phillies with a .397 on-base percentage. The last Phillies catcher to lead the team in on-base percentage at the end of a season was Clay Dalrymple, who finished 1962 with a .393 OBP.
For those interested in more advanced statistics, Ruiz is tied for second on the team in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a formula that attempts to approximate how many victories a player added to a team's performance above what a replacement player would have. Only Jayson Werth's 4.0 WAR is higher than Ruiz' 3.4 (Chase Utley also entered with a 3.4).
Talk to Ruiz' teammates and manager, though, and they do not mention statistics. In fact, they barely mention offense at all. The unfortunate part of Ruiz' job is that his greatest skills are impossible to quantify.
Like, for instance, his prowess at blocking balls in the dirt, an ability that righthander Joe Blanton says makes him feel like he can throw any pitch at any time in any location, even with a runner on third base.
Phillies pitchers entered last night having been charged with just 25 wild pitches, tied with the Padres for the fewest in the NL and nearly half of the league average (46). Last year, they finished with an NL-low 28 wild pitches, 12 fewer than the next lowest total.
"That's huge for a pitcher," Blanton said. "That can make or break a game."
So can Ruiz' exhaustive knowledge of, and innate feel for, the holy trinity of catching: his own pitchers, the opposing hitters, and game situations.
"The biggest thing you want to have as a pitcher when you are throwing to your catcher is for him to know you, and to know the game, and to know the hitter," closer Brad Lidge said. "And Carlos works really, really hard at those three aspects so that by the time somebody like me gets in the game, he's got a very good idea of what he wants my stuff to do against those hitters in that situation. It becomes a confident thing, and you see him being right over and over, and you see yourself shake him once or twice, and when you do they rifle balls somewhere. And you realize this guy, far beyond most guys I've ever thrown to, cares about the game. His head is in the game as much as anybody I've ever seen."
Most important, though - at least in the eyes of Blanton - is the strong, collected confidence Ruiz projects from behind the plate.
"He puts that confidence out there that, 'Hey, I know this is the right pitch,' " Blanton said. "You sense no hesitation or anything like that. You put your trust in him because he's so confident and he controls the game so well . . . He always has excitement too. Enthusiasm, excitement, control of the game - that's huge."
Catcher ERA isn't regarded as a stat that provides conclusive evidence of ability, thanks to the number of other variables involved in a pitcher's performance. But, just for the record, Phillies pitchers have a 3.39 ERA this season when throwing to Ruiz and a 4.29 ERA when throwing to everybody else.
"The best compliment I can give is that if he has a game where he goes 3-for-3 with a home run and he's the star of the game offensively, but we don't throw well, he's not happy," Lidge said. "He's not happy at all. And if he goes 0-for-5 with five strikeouts but we throw a shutout, he's pumped after the game. And that, for a pitcher, is everything."
And, for the Phillies this season, that's been pretty valuable.
The Braves said yesterday they won't adjust their rotation over the weekend, so the matchups for next week's series against the Phils at Citizens Bank Park are set. On Monday lefthander Cole Hamels will face righthander Jair Jurrjens. On Tuesday, righthander Roy Halladay goes against lefty Mike Minor. And on Wednesday, righthander Roy Oswalt vs. righthander Tommy Hanson.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter at