Darin Ruf Deep Dive: Baseball’s Most Underrated Hitterby Carter LaCorte December 30, 2021 1 comment
262, that is the number of batters who reached the substantial amount of 300 plate appearances in the Major Leagues this year. These players all had varying skills, which reflects in their offensive outputs. Let’s start with a simple one: games played. Of those 262 batters, 226 appeared in at least 100 games. Of those 262, 139 hit at least 15 home runs, while just 22 batters did so with an OBP of .375 or higher. In addition, just 47 had a slugging percentage of .500 or higher. 26 of those batters had an xwOBA of at least .375, and just nine had a walk percentage over 14.5 percent. Finally, of those 262, only 23 had a wRC+ of at least 140.
How many players fit in every single one of those categories? Three. Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, and Darin Ruf. Two of those names are probably a lot more familiar with you than the third. Harper just took home his second National League MVP. Soto turned 23 merely two months ago and is already a better hitter than your favorite player. But Ruf? Unless you are a San Francisco Giants or Philidelphia Phillies fan, his story may be a new one for you.
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An Unlikely Path to Success
A native of Omaha, Ruf was drafted in the 20th round back in 2009 out of Creighton by Philadelphia. He debuted with the Phillies in 2012. The next season was by far his best as a Phillie, as he hit 14 home runs with a 122 OPS+. However, things derailed quickly, as Ruf would be out of the league by 2016. Ruf would travel to Korea after posting a .747 OPS over five seasons.
Luckily, the Samsung Lions were miracle workers for Ruf. Over three seasons in the KBO, he hit 86 home runs with a .404 OBP and a .968 OPS. Of course, this is not the same as doing it in Major League Baseball, but be patient. Ruf was given a minor league deal with the Giants before 2020, which of course became a shortened season. On a bad team, he made a decent first impression, with an OPS of .887 in exactly 100 Plate Appearances.
As the designated hitter was taken away from the National League again after a brief stay in 2020, Ruf saw himself blocked at the two positions that he plays, first base and corner outfield. Brandon Belt had an amazing season at first and is back for 2022 after accepting the qualifying offer. He was often injured, which gave Ruf a spot for portions of the season.
Mike Yastrzemski held up one corner outfield position. Rotating with Ruf for the other were the likes of LaMonte Wade Jr., Austin Slater, Alex Dickerson, and Mike Tauchman. The chance at an everyday job shortened up even more after Kris Bryant was acquired from the Chicago Cubs. This forced Ruf into a consistent pinch-hitting role. As a team, the Giants were amazing pinch hitters, with 18 home runs. No other team had more than 10 while pinch-hitting. Their 69 hits were second to just the Cubs.
Unfortunately for Ruf, pinch-hitting is not his strength, which is true for most players. His 39 pinch-hitting at-bats were tied for 12th in the league and first on San Francisco, but he had just six hits, for a .154 average. Although the Giants have helped him regain his career, you have to wonder if Ruf would be better off in the American League or just on another, less competitive team.
Another reason to think that Ruf would be better off elsewhere is that he has insane home and road splits. However, he was a much better hitter away from Oracle Park. At home, Ruf was a slightly above average hitter, with a .768 OPS and a 115 wRC+. Outside of San Francisco, he had a 1.067 OPS with a 179 wRC+. The biggest home/road difference came against lefties, with the wRC+ difference being 107 to 231. These numbers prove that even at Oracle Park, Ruf was a good hitter. But put him just about anywhere else, and he is elite.
These numbers reflect those of Willy Adames, who broke out with the Milwaukee Brewers after a trade from the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2020 alone, Adames’ 136 road wRC+ was 51 points higher than his Tropicana Field number. Of course, there are differences between Ruf and Adames. Adames was a former top prospect who is 26-years-old with three years of MLB service time under his belt, while Ruf is nearly halfway between 35 and 36.
The Age Curve
That last sentence does bring up some of the worries with Ruf in the future. He is 35 years old. Most players are already well into their decline by now. Ruf is not, but he could be soon. And while the stats show that Ruf is better when he is playing away from home, leaving the Giants might not be such a good idea. We saw them reinvent other veteran hitters like Belt, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Evan Longoria in 2021. Another club might not be as successful in helping him.
As he ages, Ruf’s bat speed and pure strength could also see a hit. As he gets older, it should be harder for him to get back to the 93.1 mph average exit velocity and 54.9 percent hard-hit rate that he just accomplished in 2021. The even scarier thought is that this could all be a fluke. Sure, Ruf has a .900 OPS on the dot since returning to America. But he has only had 412 Plate Appearances with the Giants. That isn’t even a full starting season.
Thankfully, there is one trait that does not seem to fade with age. And luckily for Ruf, it is one of his greatest strengths: his plate discipline. His 14.7 percent walk rate was 12th in the league among the 262 batters. That has allowed Ruf to raise his OBP to .385. If he can have an OBP that ridiculously high, then Ruf will still be an effective player. If a multitude of stats put you in a group with just Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, that is probably a good thing. Darin Ruf is a great hitter.
Follow Carter LaCorte on Twitter @CarterHudBlog
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images