Darin Ruf was as bad of a trade deadline acquisition as the New York Mets have ever had. He could also become one of the best bounce-back stories in franchise history.
While vitriol from the Flushing faithful isn’t always warranted, it was justified for Ruf’s performance with the Mets after coming over from San Francisco last season. Brought in as a right-handed complement to Daniel Vogelbach at designated hitter, the veteran hit just .152 in 66 at-bats with New York, with no home runs and just three extra-base hits.
To say the platoon experiment failed would be an understatement, despite Vogelbach holding up his end of the time share. Yet, the Mets find themselves going into 2023 with the same situation, barring another last-minute acquisition.
There will be more competition for right-handed plate appearances this year, particularly with the Mets’ recent signing of Tommy Pham. But Pham is also coming off a subpar season and, like Ruf, was a better hitter against left-handed pitching (.273) than right-handers (.224).
The key to a bounce-back season with the Mets for Ruf is a fast start.
With no clear-cut plan at DH heading into the year – which general manager Billy Eppler has publicly acknowledged – Ruf will get opportunities to contribute right out of the gate. Whether those come as a DH or in pinch-hitting situations, he will have chances to earn playing time.
Although it may be hard for most Mets fans to see it now, there are two primary reasons to believe Ruf will capitalize on those opportunities. The first – and easier one to point to – is his track record. Ruf is just one season removed from posting a .904 OPS with the Giants in 2021, mashing 16 home runs and 31 total extra-base hits in merely 262 at-bats.
While it was easily a career year for Ruf, that kind of power surge is not an outlier. In fact, he’s done it in the division before, with double-digit home runs in less than 300 plate appearances for the Phillies in 2013 and 2015.
The second reason lies in new restrictions on shifting across Major League Baseball in 2023. While teams did not shift infielders against Ruf as often as others, he did see shifts in just under forty percent of plate appearances in 2022, which was above league average (33.6 percent) per Baseball Savant.
This coincided with a higher skew of batted balls towards the pull side for Ruf last season (42.2 percent) and, most notably, a low percentage (29.3) of batted balls up the middle – his lowest since at least 2015. Not surprisingly, heat maps of shifts against Ruf last year show opposing teams moving the extra infielder just behind the second base bag – effectively taking away hits up the middle.
If Ruf can find his power stroke and get back to using the middle of the field, he can bounce-back in 2023. Judging anecdotally by fan sentiment, it will certainly be an uphill battle for Ruf to win Mets fans over after last year.
But Mets fans have already witnessed one great career turnaround on the current team in Edwin Diaz. With the right adjustments and renewed confidence, there’s no reason to think Ruf can’t be another.