Drafted in the 25th round of the 2004 MLB Draft. Traded to the Devil Rays in 2006 as part of the deal for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson. Non-tendered by the Rays after the 2011 season. Signed as a free agent by the Astros in February 2012 and traded in May for a low-level prospect...and goes onto hit .313/.374/.535 in 320 plate appearances for the Marlins and more than doubling all of his career totals.
All the while, becoming one of the more valuable in-season pickups in fantasy leagues. How does a guy get cut from one organization desperate for hitting and another desperate for talent let a guy like this go? How does a guy that has 3,330 plate appearances as a minor leaguer and spent the better part of the past six seasons in Triple-A leagues do this?
Is Justin Ruggiano for real or he another version of Chris Coghlan in Miami?
R.J. Anderson did a quick post late last season that showed the list of players who hit over .300 while striking out at least 25 percent of the time in a season in which they had at least 250 plate appearances. The list is rather short and contains a mixture of stars and scrubs in Ryan Howard, Bobby Bonds, B.J. Upton, as well as Josh Phelps and Chris Johnson. The list below shows the batting average drop each player experienced in the following season:
As a group, those players averaged a 39-point drop in batting average. If we look at Ruggiano's batting average by month last season, he hit .400 in 61 plate appearances in June, .333 in 95 July plate appearances, .282 in 84 August plate appearances, and .264 in the season's final month in 79 plate appearances. By month, his walk rate went from a strong 13.1 percent to 8.4 to 7.1 while bouncing back to 8.9 in the season's final month. His strikeout rate went from 13.1 percent to 27.4 to 32.1 and back down to 27.8 in September. I often take September stats with a grain of salt as the MLB talent pool is watered down with roster expansion at that time so focusing on June through August, there are many disturbing trends with Ruggiano. As his contact rate and plate discipline fell off, so did his batting average. Additionally, his OPS by month: 1.215, .999, .833, .676. It seems as if the league started to figure him out late.
Pre and post All-Star break, these are the percentage of pitches Ruggiano faced and what he did with them (via TexasLeaguers.com):
And compare those numbers to what happened after the All-Star break:
The pitch mixture was not terribly different but the contact rate against the curveball and slider took a sharp turn south as did his efforts against the sinker and cutter. Sinkers and cutters are thrown more as pitches to get weak contact more than to avoid contact, but Ruggiano struggled to make contact with most non-fastball pitches in the second half.
Overall, the heatmaps below show Ruggiano's whiff rate from the first half to the second half for all pitch types:
Now, let's focus on how he did against breaking balls:
That second heat map looks like the Caucasian version of Pedro Cerrano! We see a lot of small sample-size noise each season and we did last year with Ruggiano, but the true colors came shining through as the season wore on. Hitters don't spend as much time as Ruggiano did in the minors for no reason. He has his flaws and the league found them as he got more playing time last season.
Simply put, this is a player I run away from in drafts because expectations are not likely to meet production.