Generally, prospects are like mozzarella: the fresher the better. Sometimes, it takes some aging to get the cheese to taste just right. The Marlins are hoping it’s the latter more than the former with Justin Ruggiano. The outfielder is in the midst of a breakout with the Fish, and even with some regression, he’ll have one of the better (older) breakouts of all time. He’s also 30. What that number means for the future of this particular cheese is not great, though.
Ruggiano’s having a great-tasting season. Despite a heavy step back, his ZiPs projection thinks he’ll remain above average the rest of the way and still end up showing offense that was 20% better than league average. This year, the big difference has mostly come from finally putting up the walk rate (10.2% MiLB BB%) and power (.196 MiLB ISO) that he always showed in the minor leagues. Now in Miami, he’s playing center field, walking at a double-digit pace, and thumping the ball (seven home runs and 15 doubles in 137 plate appearances). The batted ball luck is helping him right now, but either way he’s having an excellent season, and he’s 30, and he only had 207 major league plate appearances before this season.
Champ Summers only had 128 plate appearances before he turned 30. He had 396 plate appearances before he was above league average for the first time, at age 33. Then he spent two years hitting 37 combined home runs, mostly in the Tigers outfield. He hit eight home runs before 1979 and eight home runs after 1980. The Champ was out of baseball at 42 after being a part-timer for another four years. His was a two-year run fueled by power he didn’t show before or after.
Jose Morales had 48 plate appearances in the major leagues before he turned 30. He was 36 before he was 20% better than league average for 100 plate appearances. That year he suddenly stopped striking out (7.1% that year, 12.7% career) and hit a career-high eight home runs in a career-high 269 trips to the plate. The backup first baseman (was once a catcher) never got 100 plate appearances in a season again.
Oscar Salazar had just 23 plate appearances before he was 30. The year he turned 30 — 2008 — he had a 127 wRC+ for the Orioles. The next season, he had 154 PAs between Baltimore and San Diego and had a 131 wRC+. Then his power disappeared and he only got another 148 plate appearances in San Diego in 2010 before retiring. If his UZR numbers are to be believed (275.2-inning sample), his defense was terrible (-28.9 UZR/150). He was made redundant by Jorge Cantu in San Diego in 2010. He last played in Miami’s organization, with no power in 143 PAs in 2011.
Since free agency started in 1974, only 412 players over 30 have managed to put up over 100 plate appearances with a wRC+ of 120 or better. Nobody has had fewer plate appearances before they had an excellent season over the age of 30 than Oscar Salazar. Only three players on that list had fewer major league plate appearances before they turned 30 than Justin Ruggiano.
You can move up the list from Ruggiano — past Lloyd McClendon, Art Howe, Benny Ayala, and the backup catchers Todd Pratt, Eddie Perez, Doug Mirabelli, Bruce Bochy, and Bob Brenly — and it’s really not till you get to the Ken Phelps, Chris Denorfia, Olmedo Saenz, Matt Franco group that your ears begin to prick up about the name as a player. Mike Easler got almost exactly three times as many plate appearances as Ruggiano before he turned 30. Between Easler and Salazar, you’ve got a sample of 19 players. The longest completed career (sorry Andres Torres and Chris Denorfia) of that sample belongs to Jim Eisenreich (4391 PA). The average career of the group lasted 1807 plate appearances.
The odds are long against Ruggiano being a good cave-aged Stoughton cheddar (or emerging star) at his age. Most likely, he’ll settle in as a fourth or fifth outfielder and occasional pinch-hitter as his peak subsides. When Mike Easler is the patron saint of your cohort, it’s not a great sign for your playing career. It doesn’t seem to speak ill of your ability to become a big-league manager, on the other hand.
Thanks and a hearty gouda job to Jeff Zimmerman for finding the career plate appearances for my sample.