Phillies Stay or Go: Darin Ruf

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Phillies Stay or Go: Darin Ruf

The Phillies' first losing season since 2002 is sure to bring wholesale changes in the offseason. But who should stay and who should go? We’ve asked that very question for the last two weeks and will finish up our look at the roster in the coming days.

Thursday, we examined Cliff Lee (see story) and today we take a look at a homegrown power bat who filled in well in 2013:

Darin Ruf
Position: Corner outfield/first base
Status: Made a prorated portion of the major-league minimum in 2013; under team control through at least 2018

Season as a whole
Ruf had a very consistent second half filling in for Ryan Howard at first base and for the released Delmon Young in right field.

Ruf reached base at least once in 58 of 70 starts, and reached at least twice in 34 games. He hit 14 home runs in 293 plate appearances, which put him on a 32-homer pace over a full season.

His plate discipline was nearly as impressive. Ruf had 33 walks and was hit by seven pitches, giving him an on-base percentage 101 points higher than his batting average. The Phillie with the next largest gap between OBP and batting average was Chase Utley, at 64 points.

There were flaws in Ruf’s game, though. He struck out way too much -- 91 times in all. Extrapolate that over a full season and you have 202 strikeouts.

His outfield defense was shaky. Ruf, who had never played the outfield professionally prior to the winter of 2012, impressed at first because he wasn’t a train wreck like many expected. But as the season wore on his deficiencies in route running and throwing became apparent.

According to Fangraphs, he cost the Phillies 8.8 runs on defense. Is that number completely accurate? Probably not, because defensive metrics are all flawed. But it does match up enough with what our eyes saw to help determine that Ruf was truly a below-average corner outfielder.

Again, not his fault. He’s a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who had almost no experience chasing after fly balls.

Stay or go
The decision on Ruf will be one of the most interesting of the Phillies’ offseason. He certainly proved in 2013 that he can hit major-league pitching. But if the Phillies head into 2014 with a corner outfield of Domonic Brown and Ruf they’ll again struggle with outfield defense, which has been a problem the Phils have talked about correcting (but haven’t) for two straight seasons.

Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted at the end of September that Ruf isn’t an everyday rightfielder, and that despite his strong offensive half he’ll have to battle for a job next spring. It’s difficult to pinpoint what that job may be. Is Ruf a platoon first baseman with Howard? Is he a bench bat? Is he a super-sub who might see 3-4 days per week in the starting lineup between first base and the corner outfield?

Or is he trade bait? At 27, Ruf isn’t the kind of young centerpiece teams look for in deals. But that might not matter as much as most think. He’s still incredibly cheap and under team control for five-plus years. He’s just entering his prime. We’re talking about a player with 30-home run potential who will make about $500,000 next season. The Phillies could make use of that if they didn’t have so much money committed at first base or if they didn’t have so many defensive problems in the outfield.

Five years ago Ruf would have been a great fit for the Phils. He could have played left field with Shane Victorino in center and Jayson Werth in right. He has many of the same skills as Pat Burrell, who was also a weak defender. But it’s a new day. And unfortunately, the young, improving, inexpensive guy may be the odd man out.

Considering right field is essentially the only everyday position the Phillies can upgrade this offseason, it’s safe to assume Ruf will either be a super-sub for the Phils or a player who gets traded as part of a package for a star. (Giancarlo Stanton or Jose Bautista, anyone?)

It’s not because Ruf isn’t or can’t be productive. It’s because the fit just isn’t there. That’s more of an indictment of how the Phillies have spent their money and filled out their roster than of Ruf’s play.

What they're saying ...
“In right field, we don’t know what we’ve got. That’s a hole for us. Ruf is not a rightfielder. I think he can fill in for us. I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can’t sit here and tell you that he’s an everyday player for us. He’s going to have to fight for a job in some way, shape or form.

“Can he add some depth to our bench, to our club overall? Can he play a little left, can he play a little right, can he play a little first and give [Ryan] Howard a blow? He can become valuable in that regard. But I don’t know he’s an everyday player yet. It’s hard to say that he’s an everyday player in the outfield. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because we just need to be better in the outfield defensively. ... We have the type of pitching staff that is going to rely on us catching the baseball.”

--Ruben Amaro, September 2013

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.