Not so long ago, the 2020 season was poised to served as a breakout campaign for Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz. A slightly revamped approach at the plate had tapped into the 26-year-old’s raw power, and the league was on notice. A few weeks later, Ruiz’s form has dipped dramatically.
At the conclusion of play on August 1 (six games into the Orioles season), Ruiz was flying high, hitting .318/.385/.727 with three home runs and a 176 wRC+.
Four weeks later, on August 31 (32 games into the season), Ruiz owns a .183/.260/.409 batting line with six home runs and a 72 wRC+. Needless to say, that is less than ideal.
So, what happened?
Ruiz experienced a steep decline in production after August 1. That coincided with a five-day stint on the bench as he dealt with right shoulder soreness. But an even more noticeable drop off in performance came after August 15, the last time Ruiz hit a home run.
Since August 15, Ruiz is 4-for-39 with two doubles, three walks and 11 strikeouts. That’s a batting line of .103/.167/.154 and a -16 wRC+. Some players are able to be productive without hitting home runs. Ruiz is not one of those players.
It could be helpful to look at Ruiz’s season to this point in two sections: “Hitting Home Runs” (Start of season - August 15), and “Not Hitting Home Runs” (August 16 - August 30).
When Ruiz was hitting home runs, his strikeout rate was 27% and his fly ball rate was 39.5%. But he had an absurd 40% home run per fly ball rate.
While he has not been hitting home runs, Ruiz has a 26.2% strikeout rate, a 46.4% fly ball rate, and obviously, a 0% home run per fly ball rate.
But there would seem to be more at work than simply saying Ruiz’s home run luck ran out. Instead, what appears to have happened is that his ability to make solid contact has evaporated.
Hitting the ball hard has never been Ruiz’s forte. His 36.5% hard hit rate a season ago was middling, and his 32.8% for the 2020 season up to this point puts him in just the 20th percentile among major league hitters. It’s been even worse as of late.
During Ruiz’s recent slide, he has zero barrels and a measly 28.6% hard hit rate. Plus, he has seen his line drive rate drop from 21.1% early in the season to 7.1% in the last two weeks. This makes sense when viewed next to the elevated fly ball rate mentioned earlier. Swings that were once home runs have turned into can of corn fly outs.
What had been a trademark of Ruiz’s game coming into this season was being a left-handed hitter that could handle left-handed pitching. He is a career .280/.308/.470 hitter against southpaws, which is much better than his .201/.290/.340 line against righties. Early on in 2020, he maintained that reputation by going 5-for-11 with two home runs against left-handers through August 15. But his struggles in the second half of August know no bounds. He is just 1-for-10 against lefties since.
Overall, pitchers seem to be providing Ruiz with the same blend of offerings at the plate, and velocities have remained static. But when in the count he sees those pitches has changed up a bit.
You can see in the above charts that pitchers are giving Ruiz fewer first-pitch fastballs. That could explain why his average against four-seamers has fallen from .316 to .188. He is seeing it in less favorable counts.
Additionally, left-handed pitchers have added off-speed pitches to their approach against Ruiz. That seems like a smart move since he has just one hit on a change-up all season.
Now might be a good time to step back and gain a little perspective. The 2020 season is an oddity. Ruiz had two pretty good weeks at the plate and followed them up with two abysmal weeks at the plate. His true value as a hitter likely exists somewhere in between.
At the same time, there are reasons to be alarmed.
In order to justify his current 25.7% strikeout rate for the season, Ruiz needs to be hitting home runs closer to the rate at which he did at the start of the season.
Despite what some local broadcasters may assert, Ruiz is not a Gold Glove contender at third base. He is a fine fielder. But he is not the type of fielder that is worth sacrificing offensive production at the hot corner. That is what makes his disappointing hard hit rate even more difficult to handle.
Just take a look at his Baseball Savant page:
Those blue numbers are not good, and the complete lack of red numbers is worrisome. Compare it to the Baseball Savant page of Dwight Smith Jr., a player whom the Orioles designated for assignment last week:
Obviously, there are differences between the two players. Smith is a bit older, out of options and he had Ryan Mountcastle breathing down his neck. Not to mention that corner outfield is one of the organization’s deepest position groups. But the point remains that Ruiz is not pulling his weight at a position that is traditionally depended upon for offensive firepower.
Less than one month remains in the 2020 season, and there is no reason for the Orioles to sit Ruiz down in favor of anyone else at the club. Despite his flaws, he is their best existing option. Given enough time, he should work out of his current funk. He just won’t approach his dizzying heights of early August.