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.
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.