The Miami Marlins are currently shifting a good number of their prospects at the Double-A level onto the majors thanks to a series of team injuries. Marcell Ozuna came aboard to replace Giancarlo Stanton thanks to his hamstring injury. Top prospect Christian Yelich may be on his way soon. Juan Pierre may be on his way out. There is a lot of movement going on everywhere on the roster, especially in the outfield.
But the oddly consistent presence of Justin Ruggiano remains on the team. The Marlins acquired Ruggiano for menial prospects last season from the Houston Astros, and he went on a 320 plate appearance tear in 2012 when given playing time. He hit .313/.374/.535 (.390 wOBA) last year, but there were a lot of questions regarding whether his power would hold up and how far his batting average would fall when his luck went south.
Well, the majority of those questions seemed to be answered on April 22 when I wrote this piece, as Ruggiano was posting similar numbers. But as of yesterday, after Ruggiano hit his seventh home run in 142 plate appearances this year, the similarities are beginning to get creepy.
What immediate differences do you see? Right off the bat, it is apparent that Ruggiano's strikeouts and walks have remained unchanged. This is despite the fact that Ruggiano has continued his change in approach, as he has been more aggressive inside the strike zone. Last month, I noted that he had upped his swing rate in the zone, but this change has actually come with less contact being made as well. The lessened contact has diminished the effect of the in-zone swings, thus evening out his strikeout rate. The walk rates are similar as well, but that is indicative of the fact that he is not taking pitches at about the same rate out of the zone. Since Ruggiano has maintained his profile of balls taken, we should expect his walk rate to remain similar.
However, the important thing to note is that Ruggiano still has his power. Most systems were projecting a drop in power from last year, but Ruggiano has maintained it by hitting plenty of home runs. He is currently on pace to hit a surprising 29.5 home runs in 600 plate appearances this season. This would be a fantastic result for a Marlins team starved for power, especially without Stanton for at least another three weeks. It should be noted that he is on an even better home run pace than last year's 24.4 homers per 600 appearances mark.
How has he done it? We all heard about the fact that Ruggiano hit the third-hardest fly balls in baseball last year. That is an amazing accomplishment, but he must be doing something even better now, because he is launching fly balls out of the park at an astonishing rate. Ruggiano has hit a homer on 21.9 percent of his fly balls according to BIS classifications on FanGraphs. His mark ranks 21st in all of baseball right now, alongside names like Prince Fielder (21.4 percent) and Paul Goldschmidt (22.5 percent). There was a question as to whether Ruggiano could hold up his power hitting, especially since Marlins Park has such difficult dimensions for home run hitters, but he has been up to the task.
As for the fly ball distance measurement that Mike Podhorzer of RotoGraphs was mentioning in the above linked article? Ruggiano is averaging 300 feet on his homers and fly balls this year, as compared to 315 feet last year. Clearly, this is a matter of regression, but it also leaves Ruggiano in pretty good position. While he is not expected to be among the league's best home-run hitters at that number (Podhorzer's equation estimates a home run per fly ball rate of 16.9 for 2013), his expected rate at that level would be just as good as what he did last season. In fact, a HR/FB rate of around 17 percent puts him equal to players from 2012 like Adrian Beltre (17.0 percent), Adam LaRoche (17.0), and Matt Holliday (16.4).
In other words, the power surge that Ruggiano saw last season has a good bit of reality, and the fact that he has put up almost identical power numbers as last season is proof of that. The only question that remains is whether he can pick up the singles needed to keep his batting average afloat. Ruggiano is hitting just .269 on balls in play, but in particular he is hitting just .167 on ground balls. He has also upped his ground ball rate, suggesting that he is making more weak contact this season despite his still-strong fly ball numbers. If that is the case, maybe the aggressive approach in the zone is compromising some of his swings, leading to more outs than expected. Or it could simply be a fluky part of the regular season, as we are still only a month and a half into the season. Either way, expect Ruggiano to start regressing towards the .300 mark on balls in play.
Once Ruggiano resolves that last question, the Marlins will be sure that they have a valuable cost-controlled piece in their hands. If the team is interested in keeping Ruggiano while he is under arbtiration, they should have a nice stopgap piece for the next year or two. If the Fish want an outfield of Stanton, Ozuna, and Yelich next year, the Marlins may have a decent trade chip in their hands if they handle his situation correctly. Either way, it seems Ruggiano has proven his worth in the majors.