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Breaking Down Minor League HR Leader Ryan Rua

Last week, I examined unlikely minor league stolen base leader Micah Johnson, whose 58 swipes in the Low-A South Atlantic League have propelled him past some better-known base thieves (Billy Hamilton, Rico Noel, Byron Buxton, Roman Quinn, and Delino DeShields Jr., just to name a few) to a double-digit lead in the category. By now, Johnson–ranked among Chicago’s top 30 prospects by Baseball America entering the season and also sporting a hefty batting line–has started to gain publicity. It is less known, however, that the SAL also houses the current minor league home run leader: Hickory’s Ryan Rua, who has amassed 24 blasts, one ahead of highly-touted teammate Joey Gallo and well-traveled minor league slugger Mauro Gomez.

As with Johnson, Rua’s ascent to the top of the homer leaderboard was tough to foresee. He was a 17th-round pick in 2011 out of Division II Lake Erie College, where he had 27 homers in a three-year career. In 126 career professional games before 2013, all at short-season levels, he had just eleven homers. He had a very good .191 Isolated Power in rookie ball and a more pedestrian .136 in short-season-A play.

That lack of a track record, as well as Rua’s somewhat advanced age (he’s 23), may lead some to dismiss him as irrelevant for prospecting purposes, let alone fantasy ones, if not for one very important fact.

He plays second base.

This year, the major league second base position has compiled a .266/.326/.392 batting line with 199 homers–just about exactly 13 homers per 150 games (or 14 per 162, if you prefer). Rua has 24 in 72 games, for a pace of 50 bombs per 150 games (or 54 in 162). Nobody is claiming he’s going to translate that pace to the majors, of course, but he doesn’t need to come anywhere near it to end up providing above-average power production for the second base position.

So, in the abstract, Rua’s a pretty intriguing fantasy prospect–everybody wants to stumble on the next 2006 Dan Uggla and come up with big homer totals in the middle infield out of nowhere, right? But, of course, there are quite a few questions we need to answer about Rua:

1.) How does he generate his power, and how does it project to higher levels?
2.) What else can he contribute offensively?
3.) Is he really a second baseman, or will he likely end up at a different position?

I’ve seen Rua and the stacked Hickory team over a dozen times this year–the benefit of living just an hour away–and thus have seen him display the full range of his capabilities. So here are my answers to those three questions.

The Power

As you might expect from a second baseman, Ryan Rua is not a huge, hulking slugger. Compared to the other sluggers in the stacked Hickory lineup (which has nearly twice as many homers as the SAL’s #2 power-hitting team), he appears quite physically unassuming–he looks more like “former 17th-rounder from a DII school” than “bigtime power hitter.”

That said, it’s not like Rua is a Dustin Pedroia-esque tiny middle infielder who creates serious cognitive dissonance anytime he hits a ball over 250 feet. He’s listed at 6’2″ and 180 pounds, and appears perhaps an inch shorter and 10-15 pounds heavier than that, which makes him a well-proportioned, average-sized player.

Such a build would make one peg Rua as somebody likely to put up .293/.368/.432 lines (as he did in Spokane last year) more than .246/.354/.617 ones (as he has done in Hickory this year). So, what has given him the ability to wring so much power out of such an ordinary body?

A righthanded hitter, Rua sets up in a moderately open stance. The word that comes to my mind regarding his swing mechanics is “quiet;” he has a fairly short, simple swing with good loft that imparts a lot of backspin to the ball. He does have a fairly high legkick, which is a bit unorthodox, and he doesn’t get great plate coverage, focusing more on turning on pitches from middle-away on in, but he can effortlessly deposit solid fastballs well over the outfield fences. Here, he takes highly-rated Mets prospect Gabriel Ynoa yard:

And here, he manages to stay back on a slider from Lakewood reliever Jeb Stefan and drive it to right-center:

I’ve seen a few other homers from Rua, though I don’t have them on video. None of them have been cheap homers, though–he tends to launch high-arcing shots that clear the fence with relative ease, though not so much as to really stun viewers with his power like, say, Gallo can. Then again, Gallo creates a lot of weaknesses in generating that extra power, and since Rua isn’t a physically imposing presence, perhaps it’s for the best that he plays within his limits.

In sum, Rua doesn’t have 80-grade power, but he does possess above-average pop; consistent 15-25 homer totals are well within his reach if his hit tool and approach enable his power to play in games. He also generates the power in a fairly efficient fashion that doesn’t cost him ability in other areas, which is key to maintaining his prospect viability as he ascends and faces higher-quality pitching.

That leads neatly into the second question: What other sorts of production can we expect from Rua?

Hits, Walks, and Steals

The more cynically-minded of you (or, perhaps, just the more observant) may have noticed a number in the preceding section that left a sour taste in your mouth. Ryan Rua is hitting just .246 this year.

Given that he’s a 23-year-old in A-ball, any statistical shortcoming from Rua can be taken as a sign of impending failure against higher-level prospects. A low batting average is certainly a number that many fantasy owners won’t take kindly to, and Rua’s power production won’t help much if he’s a .210 hitter against MLB pitching.

Let’s not totally write him off on that basis just yet, though. Rua has 68 strikeouts and 35 walks this year in 72 games (302 PA). That’s a 22.5% strikeout rate (fairly high, but not high enough to cause overwhelming concern) and an 11.6% walk rate (strong, though not tremendous). Like a lot of power hitters, he’s a patient hitter who looks for a mistake to pick out, which can to walks when the pitcher falls behind and can lead to strikeouts when the pitcher gets ahead. Rua’s high legkick makes him susceptible to being late on premium velocity on the inner half when he’s not sitting on it, and he will pull off outside pitches at times.

Overall, though, he has a solid approach at the plate–not an exceptional one, but not the sort of approach that’s going to disintegrate the second he reaches Double-A.

He’ll always strike out a fair amount–between 20% and 25% of the time, most likely–but his approach is sound enough that his K/BB shouldn’t drop below 3/1 at higher levels.

Let’s say, just for the purpose of working with numbers, that Rua projects to have a 3/1 K/BB ratio, with 24% strikeouts and 8% walks. What sort of batting average would we expect from him then?

This is where we get to the other component of average, which is batting average on balls in play. The reason Rua’s hitting just .246 this year is that his BABIP is a meager .242, down from .386 in Rookie ball and .354 in short-season. He actually has more homers (24) and doubles (21) than singles (17), whereas last year, he had more than twice as many singles (58) as doubles, triples, and homers combined (24).

Part of that is bad luck; part of that is that, according to Minor League Central, Rua had a 52.1% groundball rate last year and has just a 31.4% mark this year. Fly balls increase home run production but dramatically decrease BABIP.

But what might a reasonable expectation for Rua’s BABIP production be? Let’s say he ends up with a 35% groundball rate, a 46% flyball rate, a 19% line-drive rate, a 12% infield fly rate, a 15% HR/FB ratio, and a 5% infield hit rate (I’d detail the extensive calculations and spreadsheet work I used to get those numbers, but just trust me, it was fairly scientific). Plugging these into the xBABIP calculator, we get a projected .296 BABIP for Rua.

So, let’s say in 600 plate appearances, Rua hits 20 homers, strikes out 24% of the time (144 times), walks 8% (48), and has a .296 BABIP. Let’s also throw in ten hit-by-pitches–he already has nine this year and had six last season, so it stands to reason he’ll get hit a fair amount. That would make his batting average AVG = (20 HR+(.296 BABIP*(600 PA-20 HR-144 K-48 BB-10 HBP)))/(600 PA-48 BB-10 HBP)), which is .244. His on-base percentage would be .317.

The above formula would call for Rua to get 132 hits in 600 PA, 20 of which are homers. Let’s say he gets 35 doubles and two triples as well (I’m just pulling these out of thin air, but they’re as good a prediction as any, given the inconsistency of his single/XBH ratios): that would give him a .430 slugging percentage.

So we have Rua as a projected .244/.317/.430 hitter, a guy who won’t help much in the average or OBP areas, but shouldn’t be a team-killer there. If he meets this projection, he should slug enough to offset those issues–the batting average is 22 points lower than the mean for second basemen, and the OBP is nine points lower, but the slugging is 38 points higher.

Then there’s the matter of speed and stolen bases. True to his middling physique, Rua is a middling, solid but unexceptional athlete. He has 21 steals in 198 games and has only been caught three times, but the low rate of attempts says more than the strong success rate. Rua posts unexceptional home-to-first times in the 4.25-4.4-second range, which gives him 45-grade speed from the right side. It would be a surprise to see him become a consistent producer of double-digit steals in the major leagues.

The Defense

A .244/.317/.430 line would look pretty nice at second for a lot of teams. As bad as the average looks, it beats those of the second basemen of nine MLB teams currently. The .317 OBP would beat out 14 groups of second sackers, and the .430 slugging would improve on twenty-five teams’ power output at the keystone. Brandon Phillips is hitting .265/.318/.425 this year, and he’s considered a highly ownable fantasy commodity even in shallow leagues.

Move to third base, though, and a lot of the power edge is lost. Third basemen are hitting for a collectively lower average (.260) and OBP (.323) than second basemen, but they’re slugging .414. Rua’s bat would still look okay at that spot (where he has 86 games of experience, all before 2013), but he would seem to be more of a second-division/platoon player at the position and would slip close to or over the edge of relevance in mid-depth fantasy formats.

Rua is fielding .967 at second this year, which is exactly twice the error rate of major league second basemen (average fielding percentage of .983). Not a single MLB team is getting below a .970 fielding percentage at second (ironically, the Rangers are tied for last at .970), so obviously, he’ll need to cut down on the mistakes, but that’s hardly cause for concern in itself–fielding percentages tend to increase fairly dramatically as players age, both due to their own refinement and the higher quality of the fields they play on at the upper levels.

Rua’s average physical profile doesn’t exactly create big advantages for him defensively, but in a world where Matt Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko, Neil Walker, Dan Uggla, and their ilk man the spot, it’s not as if Rua’s athleticism falls eons below MLB standards for the position. He shows solid range to his right, a reasonable arm, and decent feel on the double play. He may never become an average defender at the keystone, but it’s quite possible he’ll end up playable at the spot with continued repetition. He should also have the versatility to man all the corner spots, and in a stacked Rangers organization, becoming a five-position rover with pop may be his best route to playing time (Of course, a trade is also quite possible, knowing the Rangers’ middle-infield depth and win-now priorities).

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Overall, Rua is not just an afterthought having a hot two months, and he’s not a one-trick power guy who will strike out 200 times when he reaches Double-A, but he has yet to prove himself to the point of really moving up prospect lists. Continued success at higher levels could make his reputation rise very quickly, though. Like Micah Johnson, Rua merits a watch more than an add, as there are probably more interesting minor league middle infielders out there in all but the most involved of dynasty formats, but he is a player to keep an eye on due to his above-average power for a middle infielder.