Justin Ruchti: The Human Backstop

InsidethePark's Kevin Damask sat down with Wisconsin catcher Justin Ruchti recently, a defensive-minded catcher whom the Mariners selected with their 9th round pick in 2003. See what Ruchti says is the key to his future in this InsidethePark exclusive.

For Wisconsin Timber Rattlers catcher Justin Ruchti, last season was a dream. The Houston native helped lead his hometown Rice University Owls to a College World Series Championship. Soon after that, Ruchti was drafted in the ninth round by the Seattle Mariners. He went on to have success with the Low-A Everett AquaSox and earned a promotion to Wisconsin. But that was 2003, and one year later, Ruchti is learning that playing a full season of professional baseball can be a struggle.

As of August 10, Ruchti was batting .210 with 18 RBI and one home run in 59 games for the Rattlers. The 23-year-old has split time behind the plate with catcher Chris Collins all season. According to batting coach Dana Williams, Ruchti has had to work on his mechanics and had to ditch some of his old habits while swinging the bat.

"Ruchti just needs to work on staying over the plate and staying down on the ball," said the Rattlers' batting coach. "He's getting better, he's just been taught to so those things all his life. Half my job is trying to teach these guys to do it differently, because what they learned before doesn't always work here."

But for a player who's used to performing well and winning, change can be difficult. After Ruchti graduated from high school in 1999, he went to San Jacinto Junior College. At San Jacinto, Ruchti was selected to the all-conference team twice and led his team to the Junior College World Series in 2000.

The backstop took his talent to Rice University and was named to the All-Western Conference Second Team. The two biggest thrills of his collegiate career came in June of 2003. In a game against in-state rival Texas, the Rice Owls needed one run to defeat the Longhorns and advance to the championship series. Ruchti drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Rice then knocked-off Stanford to win the College World Series. Ruchti said it was something he'll never forget.

"It was probably the most fun I'll ever have playing baseball," Ruchti said. "Everyone on the team was like best friends. To work so hard at it and to actually carry out a plan that we had at the beginning of the season and then to see it through was such a thrill."

The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder batted .274 in 53 games during his senior season with the Owls. Ruchti, like many of his college teammates, went on to be drafted by a major league club. Ruchti says he thinks that his ability to call a game helped make him attractive to the Seattle Mariners.

"A lot of catchers in college don't call the game, but I was fortunate enough to be able to call the pitches in college," said Ruchti. "I think that more than anything is what got me noticed by professional clubs. That was a big aspect as far as why I got drafted."

Ruchti got his first taste of professional baseball with Everett last season. In 21 games the catcher gathered 21 hits and drove in eight runs, earning a .276 average. After being called up to Wisconsin at the start of this season, the Texas native admitted he struggled playing in cold weather. Ruchti suffered through a bout of tendonitis in his right arm in the first-half of the season. He claims that the warmer weather helps him loosen up better before a game.

Whether or not Ruchti will be promoted at the end of the season remains in question. Defensively, Ruchti has been solid behind the plate for the Rattlers. The catcher has just two errors in 57 games played. Ruchti believes his defensive skills, his rapport with the pitchers and how he handles the game, are his strong points.

"I've never been the greatest hitter in the world," said Ruchti. "I've always had to work hard on my hitting. But I think I take charge out there and I put the pitchers at ease and I think it's just the way I manage the game."

In the major leagues it seems like most catchers who have strong defensive skills aren't potent offensively. There are exceptions, like perennial all-stars Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, but they are among a rare breed. Williams says that a catcher can do well in both areas - they just have to work harder.

"I think you just need to take pride in both areas," Williams said. "If you're a good hitter it's easy to go in the (batting) cage and take 100 swings, because that's what you're good at. But, if you're poor defensively than that's what you should be working on. You shouldn't be working on something that you're already good at."

If Ruchti can learn to be more productive offensively, he'll be that well-rounded catcher ever major league team covets.

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