It’s not very often that a player has their first good major league season past the age of 30, but it does happen, with guys like Randy Johnson and Jose Bautista only establishing themselves as stars after their 30th birthday. However, Darin Ruf of the Giants has taken it a step farther in the past two seasons, all after his 33rd birthday.
Ruf’s path to the big leagues in and of itself was remarkable, as he waited until the 20th round of the 2009 MLB draft to be selected by the Phillies. Most guys taken in the 20th round don’t really do much of anything; from 2006 to 2009, only J.D. Martinez has even been able to post even 5 career WAR out of a 20th round draft slot. Needless to say, the odds were stacked against Ruf from the time he was drafted to have a productive major league career, or even to get a cup of coffee, for that matter. From 2009 to 2011, he hit very well in the lower levels of Philadelphia’s minor leagues, with an OPS above .800 in all three years. This was enough to warrant his promotion to Double-A Reading in 2012.
Ruf’s 2012 may very well be one of the best minor league crusades ever performed, with 38 home runs and an OPS above 1.000 doing most of the talking as he earned the Eastern League MVP award as well as a September callup. In this callup, he would once again post an OPS above 1.000 across 37 plate appearances, this time against major league competition. Despite the strong start to his major league career, Ruf would begin 2013 with Triple-A Lehigh, where he would once again prove he was ready for the big leagues with a solid showing across 83 games. After this, Ruf was placed in the same situation as many minor leaguers, stuck in Triple-A until he got his chance, and that chance would come with a timely Ryan Howard injury that would give him a chance to play regularly.
On the surface, Darin Ruf’s 2013 numbers seemed pretty solid, with a 122 OPS+ in 293 plate appearances. However, he essentially was playing like a downgraded Joey Gallo, striking out over 30% of the time. The worst of it came with Ruf’s defense, as he somehow put up -11 DRS in less than half a season, putting him on the edge of usability despite above-average offensive numbers. These defensive issues were compounded by Ruf’s situation in Philadelphia, where ‘star’ player Ryan Howard pigeonholed Ruf into playing in left field far more often than he should’ve been, especially in the DH-less National league.
By 2014, Ruf’s future hinged upon his bat, considering he was a player in an offense-first position in first base. However, the injury bug hit him hard to start the year, and he didn’t end up getting regular playing time until late July, where he simply couldn’t put up the offensive numbers expected for a first baseman or manage the defense needed to maintain a corner outfield spot. Particularly, he just regressed to league average offense with a wRC+ of just 101, but considering his defensive struggles, his future in Philadelphia was in flux. In 2015, he had a similar season, but a new problem became far more prevalent; he just could not hit against righties.
Normally, this would be solved via a platoon of some kind with Ryan Howard, but then Phillies manager Ruben Amaro decided that platoon splits were for nerds and that he could win 63 games without good decisions. In any event, Ruf didn’t hit against anyone in 2016, with an OPS below .700 even against lefties. As such, he was dealt in a package to the Dodgers, which netted the Phillies Howie Kendrick.
The future seemed bleak for Ruf at this point, on the fringes of the majors on one of the best teams in baseball, but then he caught his version of a break when he was sold by the Dodgers to the KBO’s Samsung Lions. What followed was a rehabilitation tour of sorts as for the next three seasons, he raked in Korea, posting an OPS above .900 all 3 seasons. As such, he tested the American market for the 2020 season, eventually signing with the Giants and cracking their Opening Day roster.
In the midst of those seasons in the KBO, Ruf did the unthinkable and became somewhat competent against right-handed pitching. The splits for those KBO seasons aren’t available, but in the 2020 season, Ruf improved to an .877 OPS against right-handed pitchers. This was also helped by Gabe Kapler’s willingness to utilize Ruf in a platoon role, making for a great season where Ruf would finish with a 140 wRC+ in 40 games. In 2021, it’s been more of the same, as Ruf has gone on to put up similar numbers in a similar utility role. However, that role is set to change due to Brandon Belt’s recent injury, meaning that Ruf will have the opportunity to get far more playing time in a platoon with Lamonte Wade Jr.
When it comes to San Francisco’s playoff hopes, I think it’s safe to say that Darin Ruf is their biggest X-Factor coming off the bench for a team that might have some issues against their division rivals down the line. Of course, if Darin Ruf’s breakout can help the Giants get a ring, his ten-year grind to relevance will have been worth it.