What Will Darin Ruf Become?

Darin Ruf finished third on the Phillies with 14 home runs, and he did that in just 293 trips to the plate. The two ahead of him, Domonic Brown and Chase Utley, compiled 540 to hit 27 and 531 to hit 18, respectively. John Mayberry (11 in 384) was the only other right-handed Phillie to reach double-digits. Many, including yours truly, expected Ruf to struggle as pitchers exploited his weaknesses — enough to become a non-factor. As we look forward to 2014, we must ask: can the Phillies count on Ruf?

Dan Szymborski released the 2014 ZiPS projections for the Phillies two weeks ago. Ruf is projected to post a .321 weighted on-base average, the fifth-best mark on the team behind Domonic Brown (.353), Chase Utley (.340), Marlon Byrd (.334), and Carlos Ruiz (.322). The National League average for non-pitchers last season was .321; for a left fielder specifically, it was .315. Ruf is projected to be slightly above average overall.

As for the component stats, ZiPS projects an eight percent walk rate, 28 percent strikeout rate, .167 isolated power, and a .316 batting average on balls in play. To illustrate the type of player that fits, I searched the Play Index on Baseball Reference for players last season who posted at least a .160 ISO, a .310 BABIP, and struck out at least three times as often as they walked. The results:

Player PA ISO BAbip SO BB Year Age Tm
Adam Jones 689 .208 .314 136 25 2013 27 BAL
Ian Desmond 655 .173 .336 145 43 2013 27 WSN
Torii Hunter 652 .162 .344 113 26 2013 37 DET
Carlos Gomez 590 .222 .344 146 37 2013 27 MIL
Chris Carter 585 .227 .311 212 70 2013 26 HOU
Marlon Byrd 579 .220 .353 144 31 2013 35 TOT
Starling Marte 566 .161 .363 138 25 2013 24 PIT
Will Venable 515 .216 .313 118 29 2013 30 SDP
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 470 .193 .372 139 43 2013 28 BOS
Wilin Rosario 466 .194 .344 109 15 2013 24 COL
Colby Rasmus 458 .225 .356 135 37 2013 26 TOR
Juan Francisco 385 .195 .314 138 32 2013 26 TOT
Oswaldo Arcia 378 .179 .336 117 23 2013 22 MIN
Yan Gomes 322 .188 .342 67 18 2013 25 CLE
Matt Adams 319 .220 .337 80 23 2013 24 STL
Ryan Howard 317 .199 .349 95 23 2013 33 PHI
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/17/2013.

Few players on the list had a BABIP as low as Ruf is projected to have, and even fewer had both the low BABIP and the low ISO projections. Juan Francisco is perhaps the closest in that regard. Last season, Ruf had precisely an even split of ground balls and fly balls. The only players on this list to post a lower ratio of fly balls to ground balls were Saltalamacchia, Rasmus, and Carter. The good news is that Rasmus and Carter finished at the top of the 2013 list in ISO so there’s at least some hope.

If Ruf is going to match or exceed the projections in 2014, there are a couple of things that need to change. First, he will need to improve against left-handed pitching. Entering the 2013 season with a reputation as a lefty-masher, Ruf actually posted a reverse platoon split — that is, he hit better against right-handed pitching than left-handed pitching. By wOBA, he finished at .377 against RHP and just .294 against LHP. There was a significant difference just in BABIP and based on the small sample sizes — 212 PA against RHP; 81 against LHP — we can expect some regression on both sides. However, Ruf hit 11 of his 14 home runs against right-handers as well. The following two heat maps show the difference in power by handedness:

Secondly, Ruf will need to make strides against, well, pitches that aren’t fastballs.

Against pitches classified as “hard” (four-seamers, two-seamers, cutters) in 2013, Ruf posted a:

  • .432 wOBA
  • .276 ISO
  • .316/.420/.592 slash line
  • 22% swing and miss rate

Against pitches classified as “soft” (change-ups, curves, sliders) in 2013, Ruf posted a:

  • .219 wOBA
  • .111 ISO
  • .141/.225/.253 slash line
  • 44% swing and miss rate

Against “soft” stuff, Ruf had trouble with anything that wasn’t directly under his hands or over the middle of the plate.

Ruf is six months younger than Mark Trumbo, an established slugger who is similar in a lot of ways to Ruf beyond age — both are right-handed with legitimate power, both struggle with off-speed stuff, and both feast on fastballs. Trumbo has a bit more raw power while Ruf has markedly better plate discipline. If Ruf makes the necessary improvements in 2014, he could become a poor man’s Trumbo. Or, crazy enough, Trumbo might end up looking like the foolish man’s Ruf. But for now, the expectations should be tempered as Ruf is still very rough around the edges.

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