The San Francisco Giants have a long history of world class outfielders. You might remember them for such recent hits as Mike Gerber and Michael Reed. Or perhaps you’re a hipster purist, and you’re a fan of their older, less-heralded deep cuts like Jason Ellison and Tony Torcato.
But they just might have found their best one yet in former Philadelphia Philly-turned-KBO-slugger Darin Ruf.
Ruf is a Farhan Zaidi specialty, which is a label you’ve heard me utter for various players at least 25 times this offseason. I regret to inform you there will be no slowing down.
He’s a Zaidi specialty in that he represents essentially zero risk, but with the potential for massive reward. He came to the Giants over the offseason on a minor league deal with a major league camp invite, which is the tiniest amount of risk a franchise can absorb: A nearly negligible sum of money, a few jerseys printed up, and nothing else.
Every team has a decent number of non-roster invites this time of year, but you don’t get to 72 people in major league camp - the Giants number - without being extra liberal with the invites and minor league contracts. Zaidi is searching for a market inefficiency, and, as history has shown us, he often comes out looking pretty good in the process.
The hope, of course, is that if you swing at enough pitches, you’ll eventually hit one over the fence. I say that figuratively, even though that is also the literal hope when the games actually begin.
Ruf is swinging at pitches (literally) the way that Zaidi is (figuratively). And he’s hitting them out of the park.
So far this spring, the 33 year old is 11-24, with 4 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 2 walks, and 7 strikeouts. His OPS is 1.565, which ... look, I know it’s spring and many of the pitchers are minor leaguers, and I know it’s a tiny sample size, but 1.565 is 1.565. He’s blowing the roof off, especially this weekend, when he had hits in seven consecutive at-bats, with six of those seven being of the extra-base variety.
Sometimes caveats apply for extra-base hits. A pop-up in no-man’s land can be a double. A sharp ground ball that’s an inch away from being gobbled up by a third baseman for a 5-3 putout can get stuck in the corner for a triple. A line drive right down the line can ride that Arizona air right over the short fences.
Such has emphatically not been the case for Ruf. His contact has been as loud as a trashcan on an October evening, with many of his doubles and triples looking like dingers off the bat. He’s using the whole field - in fact, he’s hitting more of his power shots to center and right-center than to his natural left.
Look at this approach!
After using 17 outfielders last year (which doesn’t even include Aaron Altherr, since he never made it onto the grass), the Giants entered the spring with myriad openings between the foul poles. Mike Yastrzemski and Hunter Pence appeared to be opening day locks, but that was really it.
The options ranged from players who were hot last year (Alex Dickerson, Austin Slater), to prospects (Jaylin Davis, Steven Duggar), to something in between (Joey Rickard), to many other categories. It’s been a furious competition, and it still feels like the only clarity we have is that there will be a lot of moving parts. The outfielders on March 26 will likely be different than the outfielders on April 6, and April 16, and ...
But Ruf has stated his case, emphatically. It’s hard to find justification to leave him off the roster. He would seem to be the choice both to make the 2020 team better, and to make future squads better by developing trade value.
It helps that he plays first base as well, even though there aren’t many reps to find there between Brandon Belt, Wilmer Flores, and, eventually, Pablo Sandoval. But if his bat plays two-thirds as well in April as it has in February and March, the Giants won’t have any choice but to find reps for him in the grass, in the dirt, or as a pinch-hitter.
Last year, the Giants broke camp with Connor Joe and Michael Reed manning the outfield. Joe had hit .275/.356/.450 in spring training; Reed .278/.300/.444.
I had no problem with their inclusion. It’s part of the process. But Ruf’s line of .458/.481/1.083 sure inspires more confidence that the Giants will be a watchable product with a chance to win games.
More than 10 years after being drafted, Darin Ruf might have finally arrived.