In Kevin Goldstein’s final Monday Morning Ten Pack last August, he called Darin Ruf “the leader in Twitter questions.” Ruf had just hit the 35th of what would be a minor-league-leading 38 home runs for Double-A Reading, in the process becoming one of the prospect world’s most polarizing players. Optimistic Phillies fans remembered Ryan Howard’s 37 homers for Reading in 2004 and saw a future slugger. Pessimists saw a one-dimensional player who was way too old for his league, an opinion backed up by scouts who, as KG reported, had Ruf pegged as “a bad ball hitter who does the overwhelming amount of his damage against lefties.”
In our preseason Phillies Top 10 prospects list, Jason Parks wrote of the unranked Ruf, “The scouting industry is mixed on his future, with a vocal majority questioning his sustainability at the level, while others insist this is a legit major-league bat, one capable of 25-plus home runs.” The same difference of opinion crept into in an internal email debate at BP, with opinions ranging from “up-and-down guy” to “non-zero chance he can be an everyday second-division kind of guy.”
When Ruf started this season with Lehigh Valley and hit just .266/.343/.407 in 350 plate appearances, the prospect evaluators looked prescient for pumping the brakes. But his performance has improved since he was called up to replace Ryan Howard in early July. Between 2013 and a cup of coffee last September, Ruf has hit .258/.340/.526 with 15 homers in 244 plate appearances at the big-league level. Extrapolated over as many plate appearances as he had in Double-A last year, that power pace would produce 36 homers, almost as many as he hit in Reading.
The early returns suggest either that Ruf has seen a surprising amount of mistakes or that he’s better than a bad-ball hitter. And while he did do a disproportionate amount of his damage against lefties in the minors, he’s had a pronounced reverse split for Philly so far. He’s been worth 1.3 WARP in well under half a season, which would suggest something more than part-time potential.
But it’s too soon, and too small a sample, to declare that the doubters were wrong. (For those with short memories, please see 2011 minor-league home run leader Bryan LaHair’s first/second-half splits last season.) Ruf has had trouble with breaking balls and struck out in 32 percent of his plate appearances, and he’s authored some ugly swings:
He’s appeared at three positions—first base and the outfield corners—but doesn’t have a great glove at any of them. And at age 27, this is likely as good as he’s going to get. By Phillies standards, he’s a phenom, but an absence of young talent elsewhere on the roster doesn’t make him better at baseball. Even though he’s off to a strong start, Ruf is still a ways away from putting the “bench bat” label behind him.
I caught up with Ruf last week at Citi Field, and we chatted a bit about the path he took to Philly and his performance so far.
On whether he paid attention to the mixed reviews from scouts last season: You hear it every once in a while, but it’s not hard to ignore it, I guess. Especially when you believe in yourself and you believe in your talents. It’s not like it’s my goal to go out there and prove them wrong—it’s just to be the best baseball player I can, whether that’s topping out here, if it’s having a nice, long career, it is what it is. So if they take pride in saying this guy can’t do this, this guy can’t do that, that’s up to them. But I’m just trying to go out and help my team win.
On whether it was frustrating not to make it to the majors until after he’d turned 26: Not really, because I was a senior sign guy. I mean, that was just the cards I was dealt, what can you do about that? I got my [finance] degree, I graduated, went into pro ball with the mindset of, try to improve, try to move up every level, every level I do move up, I’ll keep playing. If I get stuck somewhere, I can fall back on my degree like a lot of people end up doing. So I was just fortunate enough to kind of stay on that game plan that I set out for myself: keep improving, keep moving up. The Phillies have been great giving me the opportunity with a new team each year, so it’s just the way things had to go for me.
On whether there are minor-league sluggers whose performance doesn’t translate to the majors: I’m sure you can point to someone where it does and point to someone where it doesn’t. So I think it’s depending on the guy, the situation, the opportunity he gets, and with who, when—and I think all those things play into whether they’ll succeed or not. But I don’t know. I would never want to tell someone they can’t do this or they can’t do that or, just because they had good minor league numbers, that they won’t be able to do that at the major league level.
There are a lot of guys that are role players—not everyone can be a superstar, you know what I mean? And, people made good, long careers out of being role players, doing things right—being good situational hitters, being clutch hitters. There are so many different ways to be a successful major leaguer other than being an All-Star every single year. You need some of those other guys, too.
On whether there’s such a thing as a mistake hitter: I think everybody is a mistake hitter. I mean, how many times when you’re watching SportsCenter, I think it’s funny when they point out, ‘Oh, the catcher’s glove was here, but he hit the ball that was here.’ Duh. I mean, how many sliders down and away do you see getting hit out of the park? Not many. So there aren’t too many good hitters that are pitcher’s pitch hitters, you know?
On whether it’s better to protect a potential platoon player or give him a chance to fail against same-sided pitching: I don’t know. Again, I just don’t think you can tell someone they can’t do something. Or, just because they didn’t for a certain amount of time, that they won’t eventually. Unless their mindset’s off or their preparation habits are bad or things like that. I think as long as you can prepare, listen to your teammates, coaches, taking in as much information as you can… if you have the ability, you’ll hopefully figure it out.
On his history of having to prove himself: I was a 20th-round senior sign guy that has overachieved every time he takes the field, basically. Going from high school to college, Creighton was the only school that recruited me, so obviously there were plenty of schools in the Midwest, in the state of Nebraska, that overlooked me. And then I didn’t get drafted after my junior year, so senior sign guy, 20th round, go to the GCL, where I just kind of worked my up. I’m probably a bad person to ask prospect-type questions because, I don’t know, I never was one.
On how some poorly rated players can repeatedly surpass expectations: They don’t go to the showcases and show how far they can throw the ball from right field, or how far they can hit BP, but it’s how they think the game, stuff you don’t see sometimes. I know the scout that drafted me, he sat me down and had a talk with me to try to figure out if it was something that I wanted to do. To ask me different questions, based on related things, trying to figure out how I think the game a little bit more, which I think is a great tool. I don’t know if that’s just his technique or if it’s a Philly philosophy, but yeah. I played three sports in high school, too, so I didn’t have time to go to any of those showcases.
On the biggest difference between the minors and the majors: It seems like every night, you’re facing a really good pitcher, a really good starting pitcher. And then when they turn it over to the bullpen, it’s another great arm coming at you, so it’s never a break. You never get that guy where you’re like, ‘I can have a really good night tonight’ or things like that. It’s every night, it’s a grind, it’s a battle, and you really have to be prepared, not just physically but mentally as well.
On his outfield tutors and what he needs to work on defensively: Juan Samuel, our outfielder’s coach since I’ve been up here, Dave Brundage when I was in Triple-A. Just trying to do fundamental things out there. When you’re trying to learn a position, I think it’s important not to do too much, and that’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on, just trying to take the best route to the ball, and get there, great. If I can’t—you know, I have limitations there that I have to understand I’m not going to get to every single ball. But it’s been interesting, starting in left and then playing a few games in right, they basically just said, “Here, learn this,” and I don’t mind that at all. I think it’s fun, another challenge, so hopefully I can finish the season strong there and then head into the offseason and try improve in each area.
On his strengths as a hitter and what he needs to work on offensively: I think you’re always constantly working on something. Strengths right now—I don’t know, I would have said before I got called up, putting the ball in play, but… uh… I don’t know, I’ll probably have to address that one in the offseason. [laughs] I’ve felt like I’ve always been a pretty good situational hitter—so far in my time up here I haven’t been quite as good as I have been in the past, as I want to be, but it’s something I pride myself on and I’ll definitely get back to that, address it in the off.season. I think I might have spent too much time—maybe not too much time, because it’s given me an opportunity to be up here—trying to drive the ball a little bit more. And that’s not a bad thing, but if I can continue to drive the ball and be a good situational hitter, that’s all of what I want to accomplish.
Thanks to Satchel Price for transcription assistance.