Killing Two Birds with One Stone
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll continue to hear about it — at least here — as long as the Phillies continue to ignore the obvious: Ryan Howard needs to have a platoon partner at first base. Prior to suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee earlier this season, Howard had been performing well against opposite-handed pitching (.878 OPS) but not so much against same-handed pitching (.539). Howard’s shoddy performance against lefties has been a growing problem since 2010. Perhaps pressured by a need to justify Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract extension, the Phillies have never budged on their view of Howard as a full-time player.
The Phillies happen to have the perfect platoon partner on the roster right now: a right-handed hitter who has historically handled left-handed pitching very well, who has no real position other than at first base, and who has performed well enough to merit some more playing time consideration — Darin Ruf. Ruf hit his 13th home run of the season Sunday afternoon against the Braves, bumping his OPS to .852. Oddly, he has handled right-handed pitching better than lefties so far this year, but it has more to do with a very small sample size (63 PA vs. LHP) than anything else, considering he has been murder on lefties throughout his Minor League career. The Phillies have been using Ruf in the outfield, and while he has been better than, say, Pat Burrell or Raul Ibanez, he is still dead weight defensively and shouldn’t be cast there going forward.
Furthermore, giving Ruf playing time at first base against left-handed starters, and as a pinch-hitter late in games, allows the Phillies to give Howard’s war-torn body — soon to be 34 years old — some consistent rest. If there is one thing Howard isn’t anymore, it’s durable. To needlessly rely on Howard against the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Mike Minor, just to name two, when there is a more productive option already available at virtually no cost would be insane.
The worst thing the Phillies could do is go into 2014 with Ruf as a starting outfielder. The Phillies can do much better than that without needing to break the bank for Nelson Cruz or another big name free agent bat. Despite his offensive performance this year, there is still plenty of doubt about Ruf’s ability to maintain his current level of production going forward, particularly against right-handed pitching. Defensively, we have a deficit of useful data, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that on average, he has been one run below average in 152 innings in right field (which is likely very generous). A full-time right fielder will log around 1,200 innings, meaning that prorated over a full season, Ruf would be eight runs below average. Comparatively, a .370 wOBA is about 31 runs above average, so Ruf’s defense, in this example, undoes at least one-third of what he accomplishes with the bat. These numbers are for illustrative purposes only. This is without considering that the standard for offense has been slightly higher for right fielders than first basemen.
Starting with this season and working back to 2010, the Phillies have ranked 15th, 24th, 14th, and 10th in weighted on-base average at first base. If they had managed to get an aggregate .370 wOBA in 475 PA from Howard against right-handers and in 225 PA from Ruf against left-handers, they would have tied with the Red Sox in sixth this season. Even .355 would have ranked seventh.
Inertia has been the Phillies’ biggest enemy since 2010. Time to break with the old and embrace the new. Support a Howard/Ruf ticket at first base in 2014.