Lessons From 11 Years of Darin Ruf

Darin Ruf
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The actual process of cutting a major league baseball player on a guaranteed contract is easy enough in theory, but time-consuming in practice. The Mets designated Darin Ruf for assignment last Monday and had likely known he wouldn’t make the team for at least a couple weeks before that. But it wasn’t until this Monday that the 36-year-old former Creighton Blue Jay finally received his release. That ends the fifth act in Ruf’s career, one everyone would probably just as soon forget.

Ruf was one of several first base/DH types who passed through waivers just before the season, as teams weighed the potential for a bounceback against the downside of being on the hook for $3 million in his case, plus another $250,000 to buy out his club option in 2024 if things didn’t go well. Perhaps he’ll be more attractive at the league minimum or as depth in Triple-A if he accepts such an assignment, and we’ll see him in the majors again.

Even if this is the end of Ruf’s time as a major leaguer, he’s had a noteworthy career, spanning 561 games over parts of eight seasons across 10 years, on either side of a dominant three-year run in the KBO. I, for one, did not expect to be writing about Ruf in 2023, but he’s confounded my expectations and then some.

I first started writing about baseball regularly when I was going to graduate school in Philadelphia in the early 2010s. Like most grad students, I was muddling through a severe multi-year mental health crisis and looking for any distraction; the Phillies, in the midst of a five-year run atop the NL East, were quite easy to write about in volume.

By 2012, I’d been at it long enough that I was doing occasional radio appearances and freelance stories, and the Phillies, whose lineup had been quite stable for half a decade, started to disintegrate. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley missed the first half of that season with injuries. Jayson Werth was already gone, and his replacement, Hunter Pence, would be out the door by season’s end; so would Shane Victorino. It was clearly the end of the dynastic run.

That dynasty had started when the Phillies went on a once-in-a-generation scouting-and-development heater a few years before. First-rounders like Utley and Cole Hamels, mid-round picks like Howard, castoffs and late bloomers like Victorino and Carlos Ruiz — they all seemed to pan out. So when that generation faded, the fans assumed something similar was coming up.

Back then, I spent a lot of time with WordPress or Twitter open on my laptop, explaining that Tyler Cloyd was not, in fact, the next Greg Maddux. But no prospect captured public imagination like Ruf. As Howard recovered from his torn Achilles tendon, Ruf lit up the Eastern League, hitting .317/.408/.620 with 38 home runs and 32 doubles. Surely he would replace Howard, as Howard had Jim Thome. Or maybe he could become an impact hitter in left field (this was five years before the Rhys Hoskins Outfield Disaster of 2017–18; we were all young and naïve back then).

I had this argument so many times — online, with friends, with strangers in bars, occasionally on WIP — that I’d distilled my lack of faith in Ruf to a neat stump speech. He had turned 26 during his remarkable Double-A season and was beating up on less developed pitchers. Up until that point, it was almost unheard of for a position player to break into MLB with no experience in Japan or the Negro Leagues and make an All-Star team.

Ruf also played his home games in one of the most hitter-friendly parks east of the Rockies. So many Phillies prospects have slugged .600 or hit 30 homers there that if you were going to make a list of the most prolific hit-producing entities of Berks County, Pennsylvania, Taylor Swift would be a distant second behind FirstEnergy Stadium. (Shout out to Dylan Cozens, whose 40-homer season in Double-A produced the same argument four years later.) And there was the defense question, one the Phillies have now lived with for 15 years between Howard and Hoskins: if Ruf couldn’t provide much value with his glove, he’d have to hit at a superhuman level to be an above-average player overall.

But Ruf got his chance and was much better in the majors than I expected him to be. His best year, 2013, consisted of half a season with a 31.1% strikeout rate, but he hit .247/.348/.458 with 14 dingers. It wasn’t prime Howard or Thome, but a 125 wRC+ plays anywhere. Not that anyone outside the region noticed, as the Phillies were by that point sliding inexorably back into a decade-long rebuild. Ruf hung around Philadelphia for parts of five years, mostly as a backup, hitting .239/.329/.432 with 35 home runs in 286 games, and shortly after the 2016 regular season he was sent to the Dodgers with Darnell Sweeney for Howie Kendrick.

I thought that’d be the last we’d hear about Ruf. When he went to Korea the next season, it seemed like a logical move. He had gotten his big shot to prove himself in the American major leagues, and players with his skill set had gone overseas and thrived — Eric Thames being one notable example. Sure enough, Ruf dominated KBO: In 404 games, he hit .313/.404/.564 and clouted 86 home runs, earning him a seven-figure salary that surely would’ve blown away whatever he could’ve made as a Triple-A guy back in the United States. And as impressive as his accomplishments overseas were for their own sake, they gave him a second chance in MLB, one he seized with both hands.

The Giants of 2020 and ’21 were the perfect landing spot for Ruf. They not only used a litany of outfield alignments that opened up playing time, but they also found advantageous matchups for their hitters as well as any team in baseball history. The qualities that Ruf always possessed — plate discipline and power — had been honed in KBO and finally deployed in an ideal environment. It’d be slightly unfair to characterize him as a platoon hitter, since in 2021 he took a majority of his at-bats against righties and hit .262/.361/.463, but he hit an Albert Pujols-like .283/.414/.593 against lefties.

By the time the division champion Giants reached Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS, with lefthander Julio Urías on the mound as a bulk reliever for the Dodgers, Ruf was the most dangerous man in the San Francisco lineup.

Had the Giants gone on to win that game, one of the best of the 21st century, Ruf would’ve gone down as a hero. Instead, both he and his team petered out in 2022, ending in a trade to New York at the deadline. The particulars of that part of the story — the four-for-one deal and Ruf’s miserable performance as Daniel Vogelbach’s platoon partner — are well documented.

If you’d told me in 2012 or ’13 that Ruf would be one of the best hitters on a 107-win team in 2021 and one of the stars of a pivotal playoff game, I would’ve scoffed. Back then I would’ve bet anything against that outcome. And even now, I don’t think I was wrong about the player Ruf was during his early Phillies career. Eight years and multiple trips across the Pacific surely extends beyond the statute of limitations for prospect takes.

Nevertheless, Ruf taught me an important lesson, both professionally and personally: Be skeptical of certitude. Know the difference between what’s impossible and what’s merely unlikely in the extreme. Seeing as how I was a 25-year-old know-it-all back then, I probably would’ve had that arrogant self-assuredness beaten out of me eventually, but letting go of it then changed the way I looked at baseball.

Over the next decade, the game has evolved. Coaches are better, training techniques are better, unlikely prospects have more of a chance to make an impact than they would have 10 or 15 years ago. I looked at Ruf back then and saw only how he would fail; the Giants came along a decade later and saw how he could succeed.

And when the unlikely happens, it is to be celebrated. When a team or player defies the projections or expert predictions, too often the first impulse is to project haterism onto a person or even an equation that is in fact genuinely indifferent toward its object. Instead, consider that when someone like Ruf enjoys a late-career renaissance, we’re fortunate to witness something truly remarkable. That’s why we all got into sports in the first place, because of its propensity to produce twists and turns organically that narrative fiction is unable to duplicate through artifice.

As the years went on and those heated arguments drifted further into the past, I came to view Ruf not with frustration but with a familiar affection. By 2021, I’d followed his entire career closely, and he’d become as much a fixture of my baseball world as many of my favorite players had. Maybe his release from the Mets signifies the end of that journey. But at this point, I should know better than to count Darin Ruf out.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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11 months ago

So many Phillies prospects have slugged .600 or hit 30 homers there that if you were going to make a list of the most prolific hit-producing entities of Berks County, Pennsylvania, Taylor Swift would be a distant second behind FirstEnergy Stadium.

This is worth the price of admission alone. Great, as always, Michael.