Darin Ruf is hitting just short of .300 with great power in his first 150+ plate appearances in the big leagues. Evan Gattis has 15 home runs in less than half of a debut season, and is catcher-eligible to boot. Let’s get crazy.
Of course, you knew what was coming, because titles work that way: they’re old. As terrible as it sounds for a mid-thirties desk jockey who has never been much better than the second- or third-best player on the court for his weekly lawyer league style pickup basketball game, two players that will be 27 years old at the end of the week are old, and that means something about their ceilings.
Still, there might be a chance these players are in different situations.
Darin Ruf first, since many of you are considering picking him up. After all, the high average with huge power is an attractive package. The first problem you encounter when perusing his peripherals, on the other hand, is that he’s got a career batting average on balls in play over .380, and he strikes out almost a third of the time. Even if you project him out for this year’s Triple-A BABIP (.343) and strikeout rate (25.1%), he’d struggle to hit .260. And then you’d have to tell me why you wouldn’t give him his Triple-A isolated slugging percentage (.141) to boot.
.260 hitters with 25-homer power are useful in many leagues, though, and it looks like Ruf is in line for more playing time with Delmon Young gone. If you ignore some of the platoon warning signs from his recent work in the minor leagues — an ISO that is 100 points lower against righties, and a strikeout rate that is eight percent higher — you might be able to get a useful deeper-league player out of Ruf.
And, since he’s only 150-odd plate appearances into his playing career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he had upside remaining. The problem is, he’s debuting at his peak.
You’ve probably heard about age-at-level analysis before, so it’s no brain-buster to say that Ruf, already listed at 6’3″ and 220 pounds and bigger than many, was older than his competition along the way. In 2012, when he hit .317/.408/.620 with 38 homers in Double-A, he was 26 years old for much of the season. The average age in his league that year was 24.4. His numbers calmed to .266/.343/.407 this year in Triple-A’s International League, where the average has been 26.9 so far this year. Now you’re looking at a .260 hitter with 20-homer power and some issues against right-handers, and it’s the numbers he put up against similarly-aged pitchers that mean more.
Here’s another way of looking at. Look at the best rookie seasons in our offensive era. Since 1994, the best rookies by wins above replacement were Mike Trout, Nomar Garciaparra and Albert Pujols. Add in an age filter — 25, which doesn’t seem so terrible — and the quality of the players drops precipitously. Ichiro Suzuki and his six wins shouldn’t really count, leaving Chris Dickerson, Mike Aviles and Dan Uggla as the top trio.
Evan Gattis might be in the same boat as Darin Ruf. Owners that are looking forward to next year, when all signs point to Gattis being the primary catcher to replace Brian McCann, have to rein in their saliva glands a bit thanks to this analysis. When Gattis hit .305/.389/.607 combined in 2012, he was listed at 25 years old (he turns 27 this week). The average age in the Carolina League that year was 22.6. Even at Double-A, the average age was 24.3.
So, despite the fact that he showed better strikeout rates in the minor leagues, we can’t put Evan Gattis in good-batting-average shoes just yet. He’s still a slow dude who hits more balls in the air and has a terrible line drive percentage. Add in average-or-worse strikeout rates, and that won’t beget good batting averages.
Still, Gattis is useful as a catcher, especially if he gets more playing time there next year. In a small sample so far, he’s shown okay defense by Matt Klaasen’s measure, and has even been a decent framer. At catcher, .260 with 20+ homer power plays much better than the outfield, so already he’s more interesting in deeper dynasty leagues than Darin Ruf.
And there’s one last difference. Gattis wasn’t playing ball when he was younger. One part rehab, one part journey of self-inspection, Gattis’ back story is well known at this point.
Doesn’t this make a difference? Some aspect of age-at-level analysis must surely be: “If he had been better at a younger age, he would have played at a higher level,” or: “the team chose to put him at single-A at 24, so that means something.” None of that works for Gattis. He arrived in the Braves system, they let him run all through the minor leagues, and now he’s a major leaguer, about as quickly as he could have done it, age aside.
Math tells us that we’re likely seeing peaks for both Darin Ruf and Evan Gattis right now. And, since even these peaks are flawed, neither is a great bet as a dynasty cornerstone. But, given his position, and the circumstances of his higher ages in the minor leagues, Gattis is the more intriguing of the two. He’s behind his peers in instruction, and if he learns fast enough to offset some of production lost to age, he may yet have some better years in his future. In other words, we know less about him, and in this case, that’s a good thing.
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