Heading into the regular season, one of the most interesting players on the Miami Marlins was Justin Ruggiano. He had a spectacular debut season with the Fish after languishing in the minors for years, but there were always concerns about whether that performance would stick. After all, Ruggiano had a .401 BABIP last season and his power stroke came out of nowhere, even for a guy who was considered a Quad-A "slugger."
This year, however, Ruggiano has run into some difficult times, and many of them were not entirely his fault. The Marlins opened the season platooning him with Chris Coghlan until one player "won the job." That job quickly went to Ruggiano, but it meant a few extra days on the bench while Coghlan proved ineffective. Then Ruggiano went on to be the Marlins' best position player for much of the season so far. Only recently was Ruggiano surpassed by a red-hot Marcell Ozuna.
But that was also due to the fact that Ruggiano has struggled since the start of May. He was hitting a mediocre but playable .230/.295/.402 (.305 wOBA) in April, but that line has shifted down slightly to .191/.280/.382 (.293 wOBA). Becuase of his struggles, Ruggiano has not started a game since May 30. With Coghlan's improved performance over May and Ruggiano's struggles, it seems the team's best position player for the season has found himself on the bench and, at best, in the small half of a platoon.
The Marlins have been reluctant, it seems, to hand Ruggiano a job full-time, but they did so this season and got passable results. A look at his batting line might not agree, but Ruggiano's value appears to be tied more to his glove this season than his bat. According to UZR, he has racked up five runs better than average thus far in center field, and combined with his positive baserunning value, he has made up for his lackluster performance at the plate. But because those factors are less measurable than his batting line, it seems Ruggiano has drawn the short end of the stick in terms of playing time.
The defensive factor, even if it has him being an average player in center field, makes a difference when you consider Chris Coghlan's game. Coghlan is, by most accounts, a very poor defensive outfielder who, despite four-plus seasons at the position, still takes odd routes and lacks the instincts of an outfielder. Ruggiano has impressed everyone with his relatively smooth play in the outfield, and the difference between the two should at least make up for their currently perceived difference on offense. UZR has Ruggiano as nine runs above average over the course of a season. At the same time, it has Coghlan at 17 runs below average over one season. Perhaps we can assume Ruggiano is a solid 10 runs better than Coghlan in center field. That would make up a win of offensive difference.
And their perceived offensive difference is not even large. Ruggiano is projected to hit .247/.310/.413 (.315 wOBA) the rest of the season, according to ZiPS. Chris Coghlan, on the other hand, is expected to hit .259/.325/.381 (.313 wOBA). Their lines are almost identical at this point, leaving Coghlan an inferior option with his poor defense.
Ruggiano's struggles are tied to his BABIP, which has plummeted from .401 last season to .244 this year. As you might expect, neither one is likely to continue; ZiPS projects a .310 BABIP for the rest of the year. Before last year, Ruggiano hit .288 on balls in play in his three sporadic seasons in Tampa Bay. All signs do point to his line improving, and as mentioned before, the rest of his offensive game seems to have returned from last season.
One thing to note about Ruggiano's BABIP is that, based on his batted ball types, he has indeed hit the ball weaker. Ruggiano owns just a 15.2 percent line drive rate this year compared to a 20.6 percent mark last year. To some extent, he is hitting the ball less on the dot and rolling over more pitches, as he has a ground ball rate of 50 percent. At the same time, however, his home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) rate has increased slightly to 18.6 percent, indicating that he could also be squaring up his fly balls better. At this point, it may be too difficult to tell if the line drive dip is due to stringer error (caught balls in the air have a lower tendency to be considered line drives) or a real decrease in hard-hitting.
One way or another, it seems Ruggiano will be stuck in a platoon role thanks to the one-month surge of Chris Coghlan. What perhaps is most frustrating is that another outfield position is currently available, but the Marlins will not yield that spot to Ruggiano either. Juan Pierre is batting just .238/.298/.282 (.263 wOBA) and is encountering the same sort of bad luck on balls in play (.258 BABIP) that Ruggiano has seen. But even though Ruggiano is clearly a better player than Pierre at this point, both offensively and defensively, it is Ruggiano who is on the bench right now while Pierre has made five straight starts versus righty hitters. At the moment, Ruggiano is projected to hit better versus righties (.307 wOBA) than Pierre is expected to hit overall (.291 wOBA).
Somehow this move to a platoon seems unfair for a player who could provide the Marlins possible trade value and deserves an opportunity at extended playing time. The Fish have a desire to find value in Coghlan, and I can understand that. But there is no value in playing an aging, broken Pierre over Ruggiano at this stage. The situation will only get worse as the Marlins' outfield gets more crowded. Giancarlo Stanton's return will push Coghlan into the infield, and Christian Yelich's potential promotion may be the move that pushes Pierre to the bench, leaving Ruggiano behind a plethora of players.
It is a sad, disappointing fate for Justin Ruggiano when you cannot find playing time on one of the worst teams in baseball.