USA TODAY Sports
The Miami Marlins are running one of their best remaining players, Justin Ruggiano, in center field. Can he maintain any of the performance he put up last year, or will 2012 prove to be a complete mirage?
The Miami Marlins do not have a lot of position players who project well for the 2013 season, but in center field, they finally have someone who could be an average major league starter. Justin Ruggiano burst onto the scene last year after years of earning himself the dreaded "Quad-A" label. He shined in his 320-plate appearance stint with the Marlins, putting up a fantastic .313/.374/.535 batting line (.390 wOBA) that would be the envy of every debuting 30-year-old. But as you have already heard, a lot of Ruggiano's 2012 campaign is unlikely to be repeatable, and the question for 2013 is how much of it is expected to stick around for this year.
Ruggiano's fantastic 2012 season was defined by a couple of key points. One aspect was his strong power performance. He put up a .220 ISO and hit 13 home runs in just 320 chances at the plate; that line translates to a 600-plate appearance rate of 24 home runs. The Marlins would be thrilled if they found a hitter who could smack 24 homers a season while playing half of their games in the homer-suppressing Marlins Park, as those homers would be more valuable than the average home run anywhere else. Ruggiano also managed 23 doubles, and his stroke looked ideal for hitting those, as he was never really known as a great power hitter in the minors.
How much of his power should stick? Power numbers tend to stabilize within one season, meaning that you can glean at least half of your knowledge of a player's current power from his last year at the plate. It is highly unlikely that Ruggiano hits homers on 16.7 percent of his fly balls again, but do not be surprised if he is closer to 13 or 14 percent this season and thus still maintains a good number over the course of a full year. Nothing about his batted ball profile indicates any drastic change either, meaning we should see a similar rate of fly balls in 2013.
The other aspect, and the key issue surrounding Ruggiano, is his performance on balls in play. He hit an unsustainable .401 on balls in play last season, and that almost certainly means that his batting average, along with the rest of his line, will fall this year thanks to regression. Over the last three years, the best batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was Austin Jackson's .370 mark. The tenth-best was Jon Jay's .348. In other words, no one sustains a line even close to .401 over the long haul, meaning we can expect a fairly large drop in singles and doubles once Ruggiano's luck turns the wrong way a little. This is essentially a guarantee; with Ruggiano's expected strikeout rate well into the 20 percent area, he will not come close to hitting .300 this upcoming season.
What can Ruggiano improve? The strikeout and walk rates are still up in the air, though the expectation is that he wil whiff around 25 percent of the time, as he did last season (26.3 percent). The walk rate could improve, especially if he is among the only Marlins with a viable bat in the lineup, provided he maintains his current approach at the plate and does not expand the zone more than he already does.
How does that all add up in 2013?
Here is one of the few instances among Marlins players where we have a little discrepancy from the fans' perspective. Typically, the fans who have voted on FanGraphs have remained alongside the projection systems in terms of their opinion on players, but with Ruggiano, it seems the fans think more highly of him. A big place where they differ is in terms of BABIP, where they expect him to hit .340. The other systems see a line closer to ,320 or .330 at most. Based on my research done with historical examples and regression studies, I am in favor of the projection system's lines BABIP marks as well.
This would leave the Marlins with a player who would still be an above average hitter, something that much of the rest of the lineup cannot boast. Giving the fans' projection a smaller amount of weight than the ZiPS and Steamer lines gives us a projected wOBA of .326. Given that the league average was .316 last season, that is a healthy five runs better than average over the course of a full year.
What about his defense? Ruggiano held up well playing primarily center field last season, proving his worth at the position. Based on scouting reports alone, we know he is more of a corner outfielder by nature, however, and we should ding him slightly for that knowledge. An expected three runs worse than average over the course of a year is a reasonable estimate.
Projection: 550 PA, 2.2 WAR
As you can see, Ruggiano's other major issue that may creep up in 2013 is his injury problems. He missed 17 games last season in limited playing time and he is already missing time in spring training as well; he has put up all of four plate appearances thus far in the preseason. Ruggiano's injuries could pile up enough for him to miss up to 25 to 30 games this year, and that should eat into his plate appearances and diminish his value. Still, an above-average campaign from a Marlins player picked up off the Triple-A scrap heap? It looks as though the Marlins found themselves a worthwhile contributor.
The Rest of the Team
Gorkys Hernandez is expected to win the backup outfield job on the basis of him not having options remaining. Bryan Petersen is also in the mix, but with an option remaining, the team might as well keep its options available in case of a midseason injury. As we mentioned, Ruggiano has that problem, so the Marlins are prepared.
Chris Coghlan is also in the mix, and he may snag a second backup outfield job, if only because the Marlins remain adamant in seeing some return from the former 2009 Rookie of the Year. At least Coghlan is performing well in spring training, batting .314/.333/.400 thus far. He should stick if he continues to play decently, and the Marlins will give him one more shot at regaining some value.