Solving the Maize: Reflections on Ruf, Asche and Player Makeup

Twelve-hundred miles due west of Citizens Bank Park, where a golden sun beats down on the heart of America, armies of corn sway in uncanny unison from horizon to horizon and Eric Crouch jerseys are acceptable bridal party garb, David Seifert’s odometer turns over.

The Phillies Mid-Western Area Scout is responsible for signing two of the primary reasons any of us are still watching the big league club this year, Darin Ruf and Cody Asche. For the die-hards, Ruf and Asche have been the warmth emanating from the dumpster fire that is the 2013 Phillies. Their arrival in the big leagues has been the subject of much discourse in the Media Market of Brotherly Love because of some of the over-arching issues Ruf and Asche represent as it pertains to talent evaluation and because….well, there’s really nothing else to talk about. We here at Crashburn have been no different. Since Ruf’s outer-body experience in Reading last August, nobody in the system has been discussed more on this site because of the insane juxtaposition between his numbers (this site’s traditional modus operandi) and the opinion of the entire scouting industry (except for one guy I know of). It’s time we take another look at both players from the scouting perspective and discuss how and why opinions have changed, if they have at all as well as reflect on the scouting process itself.

So let’s start with Cody Asche who, since being called up, has hit .250/.308/.442. The scouting report on Asche by all purveyors of such opinion, including me, had been pretty consistent: Plus hit, below-average power that might play up a bit because the bat to ball skills are so good, average arm, fringe glove and below average speed. That fits a second-division regular profile at third base. So far Asche has shown just about of all those tools the way we’ve outlined. The exception: The defense.

Defensively, Asche has been fine, certainly better than he was all last year in Reading and Fall League. The chasm between what scouts had said about Asche’s defense and where it is now does not represent a great expanse right now, but if he continues to grow at the position, one day it might. We’ve seen far more incongruent scout projection/actualization in third base defense in recent years. Many scouts say Ryan Zimmerman was the best amateur defensive third basemen they’d ever seen. Today, Zimmerman is a mental and mechanical mess when he has to throw the ball over to first base, which is kind of important when you’re a baseball player. Many scouts thought Brett Lawrie would end up in an outfield corner. He plummeted down the defensive spectrum like the nameless shadow in the Mad Men opening credits, from catcher to second base, to third base, all during his waning days in Milwaukee’s system. He lacked hands, he lacked feel and he lacked coordination to play in the infield at all. Largely, he still lacks these things. But his insane athleticism and arm strength has allowed him to stay, and thrive, at third base. We’ve all missed before. Not just as individuals, but as a consensus as well.

So what has been the difference for Asche’s improvement, even if it’s been marginal? By all accounts it has been work. Simple, sweaty, willingness to work and hone the craft of fielding baseballs. It sounds cliché and convoluted and old for me to say that, but it’s true. Makeup isn’t the end all be all, but it is important (much more on this later) and it’s a huge reason why Cody Asche has become a better third baseman.

It’s also impossible for me to evaluate. As an outsider, I can’t be in the clubhouse everyday to see that one player is doing video work and another isn’t. Neither can the scouts I talk to. It’s a significant hole in the o-zone of the evaluation process and many a report has been burnt because of it. There are almost no visible signs of it, and even when there are they’re difficult to pick up.

Just look at Darin Ruf. I have, a lot, over the past two years. I first laid eyes on Ruf at the 2011 Arizona Fall League. He was built like condom full of walnuts. The adjectives “big, soft and slow” applied to everything he did. Since then he’s gotten himself in much better shape and his overall performance has benefitted as a result. Nobody is going to confuse him with Gabe Kapler but the difference is clearly there. Weight like that doesn’t just melt off because you want it to.

A year ago, my first post on this site was a harsh reality check to anyone who looked at the numbers and deemed Darin Ruf a franchise savior. Too slow to play an outfield corner and not enough bat to play every day at first base, I deemed Ruf a first-base only platoon bat at best. A year later and I still think that’s the ceiling but feel a lot better about Ruf’s chance to get there. For him to be anything more than that would be positively historic. We’ve never seen a player of this age with a similar skill set (a fringe average hitter with a huge hole in his swing and plus raw power who is a 20 runner with pretty much unknown arm strength) do anything sustainable of note at the major league level. Ruf turns 28 halfway through next year and possesses both a skillset and body that typically don’t age well. It’s a very weird situation but it’s a triumph of the Phillies player development system and of Ruf’s effort that he ever put on a Major League uniform at all.

While my assessment of both of these players remains mostly the same, evolving at a glacial pace, so subtle you can barely tell it’s changing like the amorphous mass of afternoon clouds drifting over me and my front porch as I type this sentence without a baseball game to go to. For now their chief purpose for me is not as interesting players on a lousy baseball team but rather as a stark reminder that an important part of the evaluation process is something you don’t get to see when the spikes are laced up. Makeup: A lifestyle conducive of professional improvement.

Epilogue:

If I may psycho-analyze my peers for a moment: I think a large portion of the highly intelligent baseball blogger community is made up of self-starting, motivated people. I think that they can also lose sight of the separator that is “makeup” and at times dismiss it completely. I have a theory as to why. Good bloggers do this work for little or no money. Their motivation is intrinsic. Almost all of the perhaps hundreds of people they associate with in this forum share that trait. It’s easy to forget, when you and everyone you work and interact with bust your ass, that some people are just lazy, in this case, baseball players. Conversely, it’s incredibly difficult to prove which ones are and are not lazy. Those of us who have journalistic and editorial scruples are not going to accuse someone of being anything (good, bad, lazy, juicing) without some sort of hard evidence of it. Hard evidence of makeup? Good luck finding that. At least not from where you and I are sitting. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for it, from lots of reliable sources, and consider the information we find on the way, anecdotal though it may be. The internet vitriol directed at the hapless commentators who recite platitude after platitude and nothing else is totally understandable. But I fear that that vitriol has at least bled over toward the platitude itself in this case and I’d like to see that change. Makeup exists and is important, but other than talking to a front office member or coach from a player’s organization, whose honestly is always potentially impacted by a serious conflict of interest, I have no idea how to evaluate it.

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18 comments

  1. LTG

    September 15, 2013 07:43 PM

    Honest and nuanced. This is why I always read your posts. Thank you.

  2. chongtastic

    September 15, 2013 07:59 PM

    I need to work “condom full of walnuts” into my daily vernacular.

  3. JayZeeBee

    September 16, 2013 07:10 AM

    Good stuff. I think the same goes for a player’s in-game “mentality” as well. Doubt, anxiety, goal-directedness, self-consciousness, flow,etc. – these are all constructs that vary between individuals and also within individuals (depending on circumstance). But difficult to make any judgement on. Though as we all know that doesn’t stop us from playing arm-chair psychologist.

  4. MattWinks

    September 16, 2013 10:13 AM

    Thank you for the epilogue, as someone who writes about minor leaguers with little exposure to them it is impossible for me to judge makeup and so it is easier to not try and say someone has good and bad makeup, for fear of missing something that you cannot see. But it is impossible to not see the results on the field of the guy who gets it.

    I think also we are too often on the internet willing to misjudge makeup. We have a tendency to correlate makeup and production, the idea that a guy can’t do skill x (often hitting a breaking ball) and therefore is lazy and not working hard enough, when in reality baseball is hard and not everyone can pick up the spin of a couple inch wide ball from 60 feet away. Additionally the divide between what we like to think of as makeup, a guy who is good with the fans and media, doesn’t look arrogant in victory, and seems like the guy we aspire to be, isn’t always what makes a baseball player good. His teammates may love him, he may be a complete sociopath who just does nothing but work his ass off, but in the end it matters of what contributes to his growth mentally and physically for the game of baseball.

    How many of us would really want to deal with Roy Halladay’s work ethic if he wasn’t a Hall of Fame pitcher because of it?

  5. Pencilfish

    September 16, 2013 10:15 AM

    Eric,

    Interesting observations. If I read you correctly, both Asche and Ruf have put in a significant amount of work to make themselves better players. If they keep working at it, I have hopes for Ruf and specially Asche (he’s only 23) to be on next year’s 25-man roster. Ruf knows about the hole in his swing (he mentioned trying to hit outside pitches to RF). It remains to be seen if he can master it.

    In your opinion, does Asche project as a Polanco-type 3B (good glove, line-drive hitter, a little pop)?

  6. Eric Longenhagen

    September 16, 2013 10:34 AM

    Fish,

    Asche doesn’t quite have the bat-to-ball skills Polanco had. Polanco was a 70 hitter, someone you could pencil in to hit .300 or so every single year. For me, Asche’s peak years might yield might yield seasons with Polly’s contact skills if there’s some right-tail BABIP involved.

    Asche also has more power than Polanco who had 30 or 35 raw at best.

    Wheter Asche becomes as good as Polanco was defensively remains to be seen. As I state above, he’s putting in the work to get better and he is. My gut tells me he won’t be as good as Polly was in his prime and I’m not sure he has a middle-infield pedigree like Polanco had in St. Louis and Detroit.

    I’ve talked to more than one scout who wondered if Asche could play 2B because the bat would profile better there. I’ve also talked to guys who say that some players are bettter suited for third base because they thrive on just reacting to hard hit balls while some are suited for second because they’re better at slowly and methodically measuring up a ground ball they have time to field. It’s possible Asche falls into that former catergory and just doesn’t have the feel to play second base even if he does have the athleticism to. Like Carl Crawford and CF.

  7. Joecatz

    September 16, 2013 11:08 AM

    The makeup comments make me very happy. I’m 100% in this same camp,

  8. Robert Anderson

    September 16, 2013 04:49 PM

    Just because you can’t put a number on it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

  9. LTG

    September 17, 2013 11:13 AM

    EL,

    Could you elaborate on Asche’s speed? You grade him at below-average, but he seems to get down the line very quickly. I would have thought, given the limited time I have seen him, that he was at least average. Is this something he has improved upon as he has matured?

  10. Eric Longenhagen

    September 17, 2013 11:43 AM

    You’re seeing effort, not speed. Time him down the line and, at best, you’ll get him at 4.25 seconds. 4.2 is average for lefties. Bryce Harper is also an average runner. It’s hard not to confuse effort and violence with speed sometimes.

    Also there are times when a hitter’s swing on that indivudal pitch carries him toward first base and his time is not representative of his speed. Rickie Weeks does that a lot as does Munenori Kawasaki.

  11. LTG

    September 17, 2013 12:08 PM

    Thanks. I wasn’t thinking of how he looks when he runs (I’m a runner and it has always bothered me that “efforting” down the line is praised since “efforting” usually means bad form that impedes speed… I digress). Rather, I was thinking of balls he’s beat out, double plays and infield hits, that I didn’t expect him to beat out.

  12. GoPhils

    September 17, 2013 01:04 PM

    I watch the games and Cody Asche does not have below average speed.

  13. Eric Longenhagen

    September 17, 2013 01:17 PM

    Put a stopwatch on him a few dozen times like I have, then come back and give me the times you get.

  14. MattWinks

    September 17, 2013 01:38 PM

    LTG and GoPhils, remember that the scouting scale encompasses all professional baseball talent, and so Asche is graded on the same scale as the 18 year old in low-A who hasn’t put on any weight yet and might not make the majors. The average major league time I am going to guess is below average on the scouting scale because the major league demographics are different. That does not change the grade on Asche nor should it change the way speed is graded.

  15. LTG

    September 17, 2013 01:46 PM

    Thanks, EL and MW. What you both say makes lots of sense. And, yes, I started thinking about taking out my stopwatch and going through some of those double plays and infield hits even before EL suggested it. But just so I’m clear on this, EL: 4.2 is the average LH to first over all pro players not just MLBers? If so, what MW says would explain my vague impression that Asche is above average.

  16. GoPhils

    September 17, 2013 05:14 PM

    Home to first is not the only way to measure speed. There is first to third, first to home, second to home, etc.

    I know that stealing bases in the minors is different that the majors, but Asche stole 22 out of 28 bases in 234 games in A+, AA, and AAA.

    Also, since Asche plays third, how does his speed compare to other third basemen?

  17. Eric Longenhagen

    September 18, 2013 10:08 AM

    Actually, home to first IS the only way to measure speed. It’s not the only way to evaluate it but it is the only way to measure it. Everything else is going to depends on way too many factors (How big is your lead? Did you slow down when you looked up to find your base coach? Did you run hard on contact or have to wait unti you knew the ball was going to land? Did you slide? Did you slow down heading into the base? Was the turn you made to take an extra base efficient?) Home to first times aren’t perfect but they’re the best we’ve got, along with the 60 yard dash. He’s a 40 runner. Live with it.

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