For the second straight season, Darin Ruf did all he could in his time with the Phillies to dispel the notion that his 38 AA homers in 2012 were some sort of fluke. In September of that year, he launched three bombs in 33 at-bats with the big club. He got a much longer look this season and didn’t disappoint, posting an .806 OPS and all but cementing himself a roster spot next spring.
Ruf bashed 14 home runs and knocked in 30 runs in just under three months with the Phils this summer, compiling a slash line of .247/.348/.458 over 73 games that were split between first base and the outfield. Ruf certainly has his warts. But he also has 17 big league home runs in 284 at-bats with the Phils, leading many to consider a reality in which the immense power he flashed in Reading that magical summer might be real.
Now… about those warts. Ruf, already 27, is essentially a man without a position. With Ryan Howard manning first base for at least the next three years, Ruf must play passable defense at a corner outfield spot to keep his bat in the line-up. Ruf is a liability in the outfield and, from what I saw this year, is also pretty shaky defensively at his “natural” position of first base. The only good news on this front is that the outfield is a new endeavor for Ruf, and he improved enough in a year for the Phillies to tolerate his defensive shortcomings out there for 40-plus games in 2013. There have also been whispers that Ruf could see time at first in some sort of platoon with Howard during the 2014 season.
Ruf’s ability in the outfield, or lack there of, is no doubt exacerbated by a case of lead foot, a condition that also rears its ugly head on the base paths. Ruf’s defense and base running were so brutal in 2013 that they negated his offensive contributions in Fangraphs’s WAR calculation, if you pay mind to such things. Fangraphs deemed Ruf’s tenure in Philly worth a paltry 0.1 wins above replacement. Finally, Ruf is a strikeout machine, fanning 91 times in 293 plate appearances at-bats or about once in three trips to the plate.
Despite Ruf’s downside, there are a lot of elements to his game that make them worth overlooking. First, as previously discussed, Ruf supplies power in bunches to a team that desperately needs it. The once-potent Phillies lineup was 27th in baseball in runs and 23rd in dingers this season. It is also heavily lefthanded. Right now, Jimmy Rollins is the only righthanded bat guaranteed a spot in next season’s lineup, and he’s hit .235 against lefties over the past three seasons. Ruf’s presence should ameliorate both issues.
Much has been made about the Phillies’ refusal to consider the value of advanced statistics (read: walks), and their performance shows it. Despite having a considerable financial advantage over 90 percent of the league, the Phils ranked 24th in baseball in on-base percentage and 27th in walks. In 2013, Ruf was without a doubt their most patient hitter, walking in 11.3 percent of his plate appearances and seeing 4.17 pitches each time he went to the plate, both tops on the team among regulars by a healthy margin. Without replacing him with a similar style of hitter, limiting Ruf’s at-bats would probably transform the Phillies from impatient to downright anxious.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Ruf will make about a half-million bucks in 2014 in a lineup that will include at least three eight-figure players. If you’ve overpaid in some areas, as the Phillies clearly have, you must compensate in others. It’s that strategy that has made young, cost-controlled players among the most valuable assets in baseball in recent years and Ruf is no different. Along with Domonic Brown, Ruf represents hope for a Phillies’ offense whose stalwarts got old quickly. His strikeouts, baserunning and defense are tolerable if he’s sending balls flying over the fence. It wasn’t long ago when Pat Burrell was stationed in the left field grass of Citizens Bank Park, so the Phillies should know firsthand how that type of player can help a team.
Grade: B. In nearly 300 plate appearances this year, Ruf made it pretty clear his power will play in the majors. Surprisingly, his OPS against righthanders (.863) was considerably higher than it was against southpaws (.657). Unless the Phillies go nuts on offense in free agency — and there are reports they may – Ruf’s bat simply must be in the lineup on most nights. With Ryne Sandberg piloting the ship, you have to hope that he will be more openminded in doing whatever it takes to score runs, whether that means sitting down Howard or dealing with a dreadful outfielder like Ruf when the matchup looks right. Either way, Ruf has played about half a season in the majors and looks like he can be a valuable (and cheap) piece if used creatively. He is a wild card entering 2014, making him one of the guys to keep tabs on throughout the offseason.