Saturday, September 19, 2015

Phillies Are Just Passing Time With Darin Ruf

With a likely season-ending injury to Ryan Howard, the Phillies regular 1st baseman for more than a decade, the club has apparently decided to give an increased opportunity for playing time to Darin Ruf, who has spent much of this season and his career shuffling between 1st base, left field, and the bench.
In this 2015 season, the Phillies have given 602 plate appearances to those two, Howard (466) and Ruf (136), at the 1st base position. The two have combined for 27 home runs and 91 RBI. 
Those are not bad numbers for the power and run-production totals that teams expect out of that position in the lineup.
There is a good chance that fans of the Fightins are going to be watching that very same combination for one more season in 2016. 
The facts remain that Howard still has one final guaranteed year on his contract at $25 million, and that there is no obvious candidate ready in the minors system to challenge for a starting big league job.
It has been frequently suggested that a straight platoon, with the lefty-swinging Howard facing mostly righthanders and the righty Ruf facing southpaws, is not a bad solution for the team for the time being. 
That very idea was again posited in the postgame show last night by Ricky Bottalico on Comcast SportsNet.
Howard is batting .256 with an .802 OPS against righties, with 20 homers and 67 RBI. Ruf is hitting .369 with a 1.022 OPS against lefties, with 5 homers and 16 RBI. Those are certainly nice production figures from the two hitters.


The problem for the Phillies begins to come into play when they start to believe, as the powers-that-be with the team seem to lapse into from time to time, that any other matchup will work.
The fact is that Howard simply cannot hit lefthanders, and Ruf is clueless and completely overmatched against righthanders. 
Howard hit just .130 with a .178 on-base percentage and a .418 OPS in 107 plate appearances against lefties. Why is he even being given most of those chances?
I know that you cannot completely eliminate these matchups, but there have been a number of times that managers Ryne Sandberg and Pete Mackanin simply put or left Howard in against a lefty when there were better options.
Ruf was hitting just .150 with a .180 on-base percentage and a .425 OPS against righties. 
That was prior to a 1-5 performance last night against Braves' righty starter Williams Perez and a pair of right-handed relievers. He slung a single into left field against Perez in the 6th inning for his only hit of the game, and lined out softly with the bases loaded.
In his career, Ruf has 606 plate appearances with the Phillies in parts of four seasons. He is hitting .215 with a .662 OPS in 406 of those appearances when he has stepped into the batter's box against a righty pitcher. He has struck out in more than one out of every four of those appearances.
Despite his repeated, consistent failures against right-handed pitchers, there remain some Phillies fans who believe that Ruf has simply not been given enough of a full shot at regular playing time in his career. I vehemently disagree.
Phillies
Jul 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Phillies' Howard (6) and Ruf (18) celebrate after scoring two runs during the fifth inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. (Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)
Even in the minor leagues, where Ruf has received more than 2,300 plate appearances over parts of 7 seasons, he has slugged just 75 home runs. 
Most fans focus only on the one big season that he had as a 25-year old at AA Reading in 2012, when Ruf banged 38 homers and drove in 104 runs while fashioning a .317/.408/.620 slash line.
The key there for me is actually not the power or performance numbers, but the age. Ruf was an older player at that level, and should have been expected to produce strong numbers. 
Yes, he did so to an extreme, and that was to his credit. But time has shown that this season was to Ruf what a hot couple of months was to Dominic Brown in May and June of 2013, an aberration.
That the 2012 performance by Ruf got hopes up among some in the fan base at the same time that the big league club needed a power shot in the arm is understandable. But at some point you have to face the facts of the totality of his career performances.
Ruf is not a big part of the Phillies future. He will turn 30 years old next summer. His record is what it is, and it is time for everyone to realize that what is happening with Ruf, and with the fading Howard, is that the Phillies are just passing time, waiting for a better solution to come along.
That better solution is not likely to happen in 2016. Howard has that guaranteed contract for one more year. Ruf is cheap, likely to not make much more than the $515,000 salary that he was paid this season. 
They can be effective as a platoon. It is the most likely scenario for next year's Phillies team at the 1st base position.
However, the picture completely changes after 2016. If he isn't dumped or moved along before then, Howard's contract will be up with a $10 million buyout at the end of the year.
Ruf will be arbitration eligible for 2017, and it seems unlikely the club would have any reason to offer him a contract, heading into a season in which he would be turning 32 years of age.
There is no clear answer in the minor league system. The club's top-ranked prospect at the 1st base position is probably Rhys Hoskins. The 22-year old righthander hit for an outstanding .319/.395/.518 slash line with 17 homers and 90 RBI this season between Lakewood and Clearwater.
Hoskins, who was ranked as the Phillies #18 prospect by those who closely follow the organization in the recently released Reading Eagle Phillies Top 20 Prospects list, should be playing most or all of next year at AA Reading. 
He will need to continue and even improve on that production in order to be seriously considered as a possible longterm answer at the position himself.
None of this is to speak badly of Ruf. No one should take it in that way at all. This is simply a reality check for those who believe that Ruf can be anything more than the limited player he is in reality. 
There is nothing wrong with being a strong right-handed option against left-handed pitchers. There is a role on a Major League roster for that type of hitter.
If you are a fan of Darin Ruf, my advice to you would be to enjoy watching him as this season ends, and probably through the 2016 season. 
In the end, as with his lefty-swinging outfield counterpart in Brown, he is likely to be viewed as nothing more than another disappointing part of a failed era in Phillies baseball.

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