Darin Ruf famously lit up minor league baseball last summer with an epic hot streak, the likes of which Phillies fans had not seen since the Summer of Michael Taylor or, arguably, the Summer of Ryan Howard. I included the Taylor link there just to kick Bill Conlin one more time, of course, but Conlin thoughtfully included Howard's 2004 numbers, so consider the link a three-fer.
Ruf got a brief look-see last fall, sneaking into 12 games with 37 plate appearances, and telling us really nothing useful. When Ryan Howard went down this year with yet another injury, Ruf was an obvious possible fill-in at first base. Or maybe a backup, with Michael Young going to first and Kevin Frandsen going to third, but no...Michael Young is the Phillies' third baseman.
In 2013, in 67 plate appearances, Ruf has been good. The headline stuff, the longball digging chick stuff -- that is not there, with just two homers, but Ruf has managed to put up a wRC+ of 155 and a wOBA of .396. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an outrageous .444, though, so this is all likely to be coming back to earth here shortly.
Still, there are things to like. His walk rate of 11.9% is consistent with a large body of minor league work, so it does not appear to us out of the blue. His strikeout rate is really high -- 29.9%, and that does not bode well, but for a team used to Ryan Howard's 25 - 30%, it is at least familiar, though perhaps nonetheless still appalling. These are not Punch and Judy, though, and we're expecting big cuts and big misses from each of them. Nearly half of Ruf's hits are for extra bases, and the .920 OPS speaks for itself, along with the .403 on base percentage.
He has not embarrassed himself at first base, and he has put up more fWAR than a nicked Ryan Howard in a quarter of the games. You may have heard something about that Yasiel Puig guy - Ruf has been nearly as good, but don't hold your breath on having all of this level of performance continue at this rate (for either of them). Still, some level of this performance should be expected to continue.
Ruf has 104 plate appearances at MLB with a an OPS of .978. That is a tantalizing start, but when can we say what is "normal" for him? What will be normal if this isn't it? I'm guessing he will continue to strike out lots. I expect that the walks will continue, generating 100 points of on-base percentage going forward.
What happens with the BABIP normalizes? It won't stay at .444, and we all know that. How far should we expect it to drop, though? Ruf's BABIP has been between .325 and .356 in his four seasons of A+ through AAA, though he was older as he climbed through the minors. He just turned 27, so he was beating up much younger or "never were" competitors for many of those years, which is critical. A drop to the .320 range may be reasonable to expect, but with that walk rate over 10% and his power, that still projects out as a reasonably productive player.
In fact, if you adjust Ruf's slugging down to about .400 and his BABIP to .320, but ignore Ruf's walk rate, you have almost perfectly reproduced Delmon Young's 2013 season. Factor in the increased (nearly double) walk rate, and you end up with an OBP of over .350 with better defense and base running. In short, you have a useful baseball player, perhaps not unlike Brandon Belt, but two years older.
Is Darin Ruf the player we are seeing right now, with a wRC+ of 155? No. But neither is he nothing, and he may be a worthwhile part of the Phillies' retooling process, especially as Howard continues to decline.
He may not be a star in the making, but if he can spell Howard, be cost-effective, and be a good bench bat option, he is worth keeping around, moreso than a Laynce Nix, anyway. Not a star, but a solid player likely to contribute 2 - 3 WAR over a season at a low cost. The Phillies need a bunch of those to turn back the clock to 2011. Ruf might be one.
The Phillies can't expect to find diamonds in the dirt as they walk down the street, but they need to score lots of player move "wins" to accumulate the talent needed to fill in around the cornerstones so they can contend again. Finding and keeping a player like Darrin Ruf is definitely part of that process. That he is a Phillies product and a genuinely likable player should not be overlooked, either.
I've talked myself into being a believer on Ruf. One of the reasons I will be watching the rest of the way this year is to see if I'm right. The last week or so has been tough, but I agree that this is not a franchise that is going to plunge into the cellar for decades. The financial resources and the infrastructure to compete remain intact. There is a good core of players to build on. The minors are recovering. And at the MLB level, players like Darin Ruf, Domonic Brown, and Jonathan Pettibone are giving me a reason to be optimistic. And to believe.