Ruf homers in place of Howard

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A fan looks out on the tarp-covered field at Citizens Bank Park during rain delay.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A fan looks out on the tarp-covered field at Citizens Bank Park during rain delay.
Posted: May 29, 2014

FOR A split second, Darin Ruf appeared to hesitate. Maybe he was thinking fastball. But he identified a slider, and he liked the look of it. After leaving the left hand of Jorge De La Rosa, it traveled right to left across the plate. Ruf held back just enough, then dropped his bat head and sent the pitch soaring high into the muggy night. As he rounded second, he smacked his hands together emphatically, his solo home run having tied the game, 1-1, in the fourth.

The word platoon was mentioned a couple of times prior to the game, and for good reason. Ryne Sandberg elected to start Ruf's righthanded bat at first base against De La Rosa rather than his usual centerpiece. At some point, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Ryan Howard has struck out in 25 of his 52 at-bats against lefthanded pitchers this season. Last night seemed as good a time as any to give the big guy a blow. Sandberg acknowledged a desire to get Ruf some at-bats, and he did not rule out doing it at first base the next time the Phillies face a lefty. But that next time is not projected to occur until Sunday. In between, the Phillies are scheduled to face four straight righties: Jordan Lyles, Zach Wheeler, Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom.

All of this is a good example of how the word "platoon" usually sounds more dramatic than it actually is. Howard and Ruf wouldn't be splitting time. Howard would still be starting 75 percent of the games due to the ratio of righties to lefties across baseball. And that brings us to the irony of the situation. In order for Howard to give the Phillies the equivalent of $25 million in production at the plate, he is really going to need to start hitting righties better.

In 141 plate appearances with the platoon advantage this season (heading into last night), Howard was hitting .246 with a .326 on-base percentage, .452 slugging percentage and six home runs. His career batting line against them: .293/.388/.600.

The Phillies are getting to a point in the season where they need one of their power bats to get hot. Their overall numbers look somewhat curious when you consider that, according to OPS+, five of their eight regulars have been well above average hitters. Jimmy Rollins has been the kind of top-of-the-order hitter that fans have pleaded for over the last few years. Heading into last night's game, his on-base percentage was .360. His career high for a season: .349. Chase Utley has provided quintessential three-hole production. Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz have been solid, albeit streaky (Byrd entered last night hitting .196 with 14 strikeouts in 46 at-bats over his last 12 games, while Ruiz has a .579 OPS since the start of May).

What the Phillies are missing is home-run power in the middle of their order, which is why you have heard Sandberg mention on several occasions that his team just can't seem to get a big hit with men on base. As of yesterday, they were hitting home runs at the third-lowest rate in the National League, just 2.0 percent of their plate appearances, ahead of only the Mets and Cardinals (the Rockies, meanwhile, were leading the league with home runs in 3.4 percent of their plate appearances). The Phillies were among the league leaders in walk rate, but their extra-base hit rate was right around league average.

Howard, of course, is paid for his power, and the absence of it is something the Phillies don't appear capable of winning without. As of last night, he had extra-base hits in only 8.0 percent of his plate appearances, which would be a career low for a season. He had homered in 4.0 percent of his plate appearances, 2.1 percent lower than his career average (the equivalent of about four fewer homers over 201 plate appearances). Perhaps most concerning is the rate at which his fly balls end up leaving the ballpark: 10.5 percent of them have gone for home runs, which is a little better than league average, but dramatically lower than his career average of 17.7 percent.

Howard has gotten off to slow starts before, but the only time he was less productive than this season through 47 games was 2008, when he hit .183/.289/.396 with 68 strikeouts in 197 plate appearances. Even then, he had 10 home runs, compared with the eight he carried into yesterday.

Nobody is suggesting that the Phillies should give Ruf a longer look at first base. With Domonic Brown, the team's other potential power source, struggling in leftfield, Sandberg can look there to get Ruf at-bats while still keeping Howard in the lineup. The point is that, when Howard is in the lineup, the Phillies need him to find his power stroke. Starting Ruf against a lefty every four or five games isn't going to solve what ails the lineup. Only the big guy in the middle can do that.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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