In his first 133 career plate appearances, Darin Ruf has been quite impressive. He has posted a .309/.395/.564 slash line, good for a .405 wOBA. To put that in perspective, there are only eight regulars in the majors -- out of the 151 with enough plate appearances to qualify -- who have posted a .400 or better wOBA: Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Mike Trout, Michael Cuddyer, David Ortiz, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez and Paul Goldschmidt. That's some good company to keep.
His peripheral stats paint a flattering picture as well. He has a .255 ISO, which would put him slightly behind 2008-09 era Ryan Howard. He's drawn walks in 11 percent of his plate appearances, by far the highest rate on the club, ahead of Michael Young at 8.7 percent.
There are, however, two stats that are cause for alarm. The first is his strikeout rate. At 29.5 percent, he would rank eighth in the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Howard, over the last two years, has struck out 34 and 30 percent, respectively. While a sky-high strikeout rate isn't a precluding factor in offensive success -- Pedro Alvarez and Colby Rasmus are among the leaders, for example -- it can be an impediment.
The second key stat to look at is Ruf's BABIP. While hitters control their BABIP significantly more than pitchers do, they can still have fluke seasons, and it appears that Ruf is having a very fortunate start to his career BABIP-wise. At .412, his BABIP would be the second-highest in baseball behind Chris Johnson's .425. Johnson's BABIP, by the way, is historically rare. Not even Tony Gwynn (.341), Wade Boggs (.344), or Ichiro Suzuki (.345) sustained a BABIP near .400 over a career.
So where is the BABIP luck coming from? Let's split up Ruf's batted balls by type:
Line drives (17): .765 BABIP (MLB average: .717)
Groundballs (18): .389 (MLB average: .237)
Fly balls (20): .063 (MLB average: .142)
The "extra" hits Ruf has had, compared to the league average, come out to one on line drives, three on groundballs, and a loss of one via fly balls. Three fewer hits would take his batting average from .309 to .272. Ah, the joys of small samples. His batted ball rates are quite normal. If it were the case that he happened to be hitting a lot of line drives, his abnormally high BABIP would be easily explained. That he has had luck on a few grounders tells us nothing about his hitting skill and simply suggests lady luck has been on his side through one-fifth of a season's worth of at-bats to start his career.
The kicker is that Ruf's BABIP luck has come exclusively against right-handed pitching this year: .475 compared to .182 against lefties. Last October, I suggested platooning Ruf with Howard at first base because Ruf has always struggled with right-handed pitching. I don't think I need to explain why Ruf is not a .475 BABIP hitter against right-handed pitching. Even in 2006, when Howard was mashing right-handed pitchers en route to the NL MVP Award, he had a .351 BABIP against them. Additionally Ruf has a .500 BABIP on "soft" stuff from right-handers, also a perceived weakness of his. (It's exactly .000 against lefties in 10 PAs.)
Ruf has put the ball in play on 31.4 percent of his swings. Among 400 hitters who have taken at least 90 trips to the plate this season, that ranks 382nd. The league average is 41 percent. Because he has struck out so much, he has comparatively put the ball in play less often. As a result, he is unfortunately not even utilizing his ridiculous BABIP fortune to its fullest.
We don't have nearly enough data to know what Ruf's true-talent BABIP really is. Is he an Ichiro (.345)? Or an Adam Dunn (.286)? Somewhere in between? We can, however, be extremely skeptical of a .412 BABIP compiled in 133 career plate appearances -- the same amount of plate appearances Ben Revere compiled between the start of the season and May 19.
Bill Baer writes for Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.