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What kind of player is Justin Ruggiano and what can we expect from him in 2015?

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Justin Ruggiano is good at some things. Justin Ruggiano is also bad at some things. Let's talk about it!

Hit it to the moon!
Hit it to the moon!
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that Justin Ruggiano has been a member of the Seattle Mariners for 51 days? It's true! Here are some other things about Justin that might be useful in helping you figure out what to expect from him as you root for the Mariners this season.

Justin Ruggiano is good at hitting LHP and not awful at hitting RHP

The thought is that Ruggiano will probably spend a lot of his time platooning in right field with lefty Seth Smith. Jake wrote about what that platoon might look; it'd probably be pretty good if that is what ends up happening. However, unlike Seth Smith (who has a miserly wRC+ of 63 against RHP), Ruggiano does a fairly respectable job hitting same-handed pitchers. (I don't point this out because I think that Ruggiano should be an everyday player... it's just that weird things happen in baseball sometimes and it's nice when your weaknesses aren't as weak as they could be.)

vs L as R 443 20 8.4% 23.0% 0.266 0.329 0.508 0.836 0.360 128
vs R as R 806 23 7.4% 27.8% 0.252 0.314 0.390 0.704 0.312 94
Home 578 14 8.8 % 25.4 % 0.258 0.325 0.405 0.730 0.321 100
Away 671 29 6.9 % 26.7 % 0.257 0.315 0.454 0.769 0.336 111
Total 1249 43 7.8% 26.1% 0.257 0.319 0.431 0.751 0.329 106

Only ~35% of Ruggiano's plate appearances have come against lefties and he's still managed to put up a career wRC+ of 106. For perspective, more than 2/3 of Mariner plate appearances in 2014 went to players with a wRC+ below 106. Add in the fact that Ruggiano will probably see left-handed pitching more often in 2015 and he seems likely to make a pretty positive contribution with his bat. (I also included Ruggiano's home/road splits. He's spent the majority of his career playing for the Marlins and the Cubs, both of whom have pretty hitter-friendly parks. Fortunately for the Mariners, it appears as though his offensive numbers aren't largely driven by matchstick-sized stadiums.)

Justin Ruggiano is strong

As a baseball player and athlete, one would expect Ruggiano to be fairly muscly. And he is! Or at least, he appears to be. Below is a list that compares Justin Ruggiano to several players who are generally accepted to be monster mashers who hit the ball very far (this group consists of the top several players from 2014's Golden Sledgehammer list; I also threw in a couple of M's for comparison.)

Average distance of home runs and flyballs between 2012 and 2014:

  • Pedro Alvarez: 306'
  • Giancarlo Stanton: 303.2'
  • Nelson Cruz: 296.5'
  • Justin Ruggiano: 296.4'
  • Matt Holliday: 295.6'
  • Ian Desmond: 292.4'
  • Robinson Cano: 290.6'
  • Mike Trout: 286.1'
  • Hunter Pence: 285.3'
  • Kyle Seager: 278.5'

Lots of Mariners fans are excited about Cruz's perceived POWER (their excitement does appear pretty well-founded). According to the numbers above, Justin Ruggiano seems like he might be just as strong. Wow! It should be pointed out that  Ruggiano is 32-years-old and that his raw power does seem to be diminishing a bit with age (although he did suffer a hamstring injury at the end of April, which could've slowed him down).

Nonetheless, he still averaged 285' on his flyballs and home runs in 2014, which is further than any regular on the 2014 Mariners who wasn't named Mike Zunino. As long as he doesn't completely fall off, Ruggiano should definitely be able to mash some balls out of Safeco in 2015. Speaking of dingers...

Justin Ruggiano hits home runs

As a result of being a big, strong man, Justin Ruggiano hits his fair share of home runs. In fact, he actually hits more than his fair share. Over the past three seasons, he's hit a home run every 28 PA. That's ~40% more frequently compared to the MLB average for non-pitchers (one home run every 39 PA). Unfortunately, we do again see that his production dipped in 2014 compared to his numbers in 2012 and 2013.

Year True Dist. Speed Off Bat Elev. Angle Horiz. Angle Apex HR PA PA/HR MLB PA/HR
2012 414 105 29 100 99 13 320 24.6 36.3
2013 399 103 28 98 88 18 472 26.2 38.7
2014 394 104 26 90 75 6 250 41.7 42.8
Total 404 104 28 98 90 37 1042 28.2 39.1

It'll be interesting to see whether last season was an injury-related blip or if it represented the start of a true decline. Still, last year's version of Justin Ruggiano hit home runs at a ~league-average clip and hit them as far as Miguel Cabrera hit his home runs in 2014. Furthermore, Ruggiano has also demonstrated the ability to hit the ball to all fields. Over the past three seasons, 19% (seven) of his home runs have been hit to center field field and 19% have been hit to right field. Here he is crushing a no-doubter to deep center (432 feet!) at Citi Field last August.

Justin Ruggiano likes hitting fastballs he likes hitting when he is ahead in the count. Counterpoint, Justin Ruggiano does not like hitting offspeed/breaking pitches he does not like hitting when he is behind in the count

This isn't particularly unique. Most hitters tend to make it to the big leagues based largely upon their ability to punish fastballs, while oftentimes struggling to hit slower and/or bendier pitches. (Look at Mike Zunino!) Here's how Ruggiano fared against different types of pitches between 2012 and 2014.

Pitch Category* Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR AVG SLG ISO BABIP
Hard 2314 551 120 60 6 105 32 2 29 0.305 0.528 0.223 0.346
Breaking 1153 231 91 8 2 33 10 1 3 0.204 0.294 0.091 0.321
Offspeed 538 128 50 13 0 10 8 0 3 0.164 0.297 0.133 0.240

*As classified by Brooks Baseball.

Over this period, Ruggiano slugged .528 against hard pitches and less than .300 against everything else. Among the 223 players who accumulated at least 1000 PA over the last three seasons, Ruggiano was the 16th most successful against fastballs (a wFB/C of 1.43). Conversely, he was the 16th worst against curveballs (-0.88 wCB/C) and the sixth worst against changeups (-1.88 wCH/C). This disparity is very large. The table above is directly related to the table below, which shows how Ruggiano performs during different counts.

Batter Ahead 381 19 0.319 0.479 0.592 1.071
Even Count 360 16 0.277 0.279 0.469 0.748
Pitcher Ahead 301 2 0.159 0.168 0.217 0.386

Of course, all hitters do better when the count is in their favor and struggle when the pitcher has the advantage. However, Ruggiano's OPS when he's either ahead of or even in the count is ~20% better than the league average in those situations, while his OPS when he's behind is ~25% worse than the league average. This discrepancy can be partially explained by the pitches that Ruggiano sees in these different situations.

Situation Hard Breaking Offspeed
Batter Ahead 68% 18% 13%
Even 56% 31% 13%
Pitcher Ahead 49% 36% 15%

He's been 40% more likely to see hard stuff when he's ahead in the count. This isn't particularly uncommon; most pitchers opt to throw a fastball when they're behind and need to throw a strike. It's just that Ruggiano is especially good at hitting fastballs and especially not good at hitting anything else. I don't know if this is a problem with pitch recognition or if Ruggiano just guesses fastball on every pitch or what. Regardless, I think it's pretty interesting.

These trends were particularly exaggerated last year. (I recognize that a sample size of only 250 PA is small, but these numbers are so absurd that I want to share them anyway.) In 2014, Ruggiano had an OPS of 1.199 when he was ahead in the count. That's the same OPS that Troy Tulowitzki had when he was ahead in the count! And it's higher than the OPS of Victor Martinez (1.178), Andrew McCutchen (1.122), or Giancarlo Stanton (1.096). That's great! Unfortunately, the opposite side of the coin in 2014 was incredibly ugly. When the pitcher was ahead in the count, Ruggiano had an OPS of... 0.253. That's on base PLUS slugging. Yikes. Here is his hit chart for 2014 when he fell behind in the count (he also struck out 41 times).

This represents the combined output of 75 PA. One double! Eight singles! That is not a lot of production. Hopefully Ruggiano is able to work himself into many favorable counts in 2015.

Justin Ruggiano is an outfielder who probably won't make you cringe (too often) with his defensive performance

As for the other part of Ruggiano's game, it appears as though he is an uninspiring defender but probably (hopefully) not a complete train wreck. Over the past three seasons, he's put up a UZR/150 of -5.0 and played all three positions in the outfield (~400 innings in LF, ~1250 in CF, and ~400 in RF).  Unfortunately, his numbers are trending downward; his UZR/150 has dipped from 0.9 in 2012 to -12.6 last season.

It should be noted that these numbers are based on fairly small sample sizes (Ruggiano spent less than 500 innings in the field in 2014), but this apparent decline combined with the fact that Ruggiano had two leg/ankle injuries last year sure makes me hope that Lloyd is super thoughtful about how he uses Ruggiano in the field in 2015. For a bit more perspective, here's a table comparing Ruggiano's defensive numbers as an outfielder over the past three seasons with Michael Saunders and Seth Smith.

Name Innings Errors DRS ARM UZR/150
Seth Smith 1996.2 3 7 -1.2 -0.5
Justin Ruggiano 2069 8 -15 -3.1 -5
Michael Saunders 2743.1 5 -18 -4.2 -4.3

Not a whole lot of difference between these guys. We'll have to see if it feels that way once we get to see Justin in action. Ruggiano didn't have tooooo many defensive "highlights" in 2014, but here's a video of him getting a good jump to take away extra bases against the Mets.

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All in all, Ruggiano seems like a pretty useful piece for the M's. He is very good at some things and not so good at others (i.e., he's a human being). He's also "only" costing the Mariners $2.5M this season and is under club control for next year, too. He'll probably strike out a lot and make some misplays in the outfield that might make you shake your head, but I think that the pop in his bat will probably more than make up for these shortcomings. Hopefully he'll help the Mariners quite a bit in 2015. I'm excited to see what he can do.

Go Justin!

And Go M's!