A Successful Darin Ruf Would Make For Rare Company
Of 3,745 players to earn big-league rookie status in their age-26 season or later, just nine hit more than 20 home runs that year.
Ruf's curious career arc isn't a well-kept secret.
From the onset, he showed promise as a plus contact hitter, posting batting averages over .290 in each of his first three minor league seasons at various Phillies Single-A levels.
But he was never known for power, even after hitting 17 in 2011 with a .308/.388/.506 slash line in Single-A Clearwater.
Then came 2012, when Ruf broke Ryan Howard's franchise minor league home run record with 38, and had 104 RBIs, a 1.028 OPS an Eastern League MVP.
Now, with spring training for what will be Ruf’s age-26 season a week away, the hope is that he translates that production – and continues his flash from the tail-end of 2012, when he hit three home runs and 10 RBIs with a 1.024 OPS in 12 games – and emerges a bona fide slugger.
It’s hard to say whether there’s a precedent.
Ruf has comps, namely Del Bissonette, who hit 25 home runs in his rookie year as a 28-year-old. Bissonette hit 31 home runs the year before with his organization’s Double-A affiliate, and in two years prior hit 15 and 18 in what would now translate to Class-A ball.
Of course, that was in the late-1920s.
In fact, of those nine aforementioned seasons, just three came since 1954. Of those, all three happened after 2006, when a 26-year-old named Dan Uggla hit 27 home runs for the Marlins.
But two-thirds of them, Alexei Ramirez’s 21-home run 2008 and Yoenis Cespedes’ 23-home run 2012, followed a combined three-game minor league career. Less “late bloomers” than “Cuban defectors.”
Of the old-school late bloomers, nearly all had a standing record of minor-league pop.
Before hitting 25 home runs in 1929, the second-most ever for an age-26-plus rookie, Dale Alexander posted four straight years of double-digit bombs. His had 20 in his first, in what compares to Class-A ball. He had 31 in his last, with Detroit’s Double-A squad.
Bob Johnson had four-straight 20-plus home run seasons before hitting 21 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953 at 27-years-old.
Ray Jablonski had 17 or more jacks in four of five minor league seasons before hitting 21 in his debut for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 at age 21.
Don Lenhardt had back-to-back 20-plus home run years for the St. Louis Browns Class-A and Double-A affiliates. The next year, he hit 22 in his age-27 rookie season.
Johnny Frederick was quiet in his three years in the minors before hitting 24 home runs in 1929 at 27. But before that, he hit 16, 28 and 10 home runs in the three years prior, with the Brooklyn Robins’ Double-A affiliate.
Needless to say, times have changed. Distractions like wars and depressions don’t often stand between soon-to-be big-league break-outs and their fates. Oftentimes, that means players are going to be what they’re going to be. At least that’s the perception.
The Phillies, though, are willing to look past the oddity and focus solely on Ruf’s potential. That, to them, is worth potentially sacrificing defense in left field.
After the Phillies season ended, Ruf trekked to Venezuela, where he hit 10 home runs and 27 RBIs with a .943 OPS in 32 winter league games. The three players tied for first all hit 16 home runs, but needed 60, 53 and 61 games. Ruf’s HR rate topped the league.
For sure, that’s an accolade the Phillies wouldn’t mind hearing again.
But they’d be just fine with Ruf making for outlier age-26 rookie season.