With the announcement of the Korea Baseball Organization) KBO airing games live on ESPN this season, let’s look back at current SF Giants NRBI Darin Ruf’s time there.
The 33-year-old spent five years of his career shuttling between the Philadelphia Phillies and their minor league teams from 2012-2016. His career was not going anywhere fast.
Ruf had hit .240 across 737 at-bats, with just 35 home runs and a .747 OPS to show for it. When he wasn’t playing at first base, he was playing in left field, and those aren’t the kind of numbers you expect to get from either position. All told, his career totaled a worse-than-replacement-level -0.7 WAR.
His second MLB season may have been his best: he hit 14 home runs and had an .806 OPS. His last MLB season was undoubtedly the worst, with just a .205 batting average and .573 OPS.
After that, he was traded to the Dodgers, but they soon sold his contract to the Samsung Lions of the KBO — the highest level of professional baseball in Korea.
The three seasons he spent playing with the Lions in many ways could be seen as the best seasons of his professional career. He played in more than 130 games each of the three seasons, never hitting below .292.
He combined an ability to get on base, with an OBP of .419 in 2018, with power. That year he hit 31 home runs and 38 doubles, giving him .605 slugging an an OPS of 1.024.
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For his time in Korea, Ruf had a line of .313 / .404 / .564 / .968 with 86 home runs, 205 walks, and 301 strikeouts.
Naturally, you can’t make a one to one comparison between leagues. MLB is the highest level of baseball in the world. KBO isn’t even the highest level of baseball in Asia. (NPB holds that.) It might fall somewhere around the Double-A level here though it’s even hard to make a direct comparison like that.
Ruf spoke with Kerry Crowley of the SF Chronicle for an article that ran in March: “I think maybe I’m a smarter hitter (after playing in Korea),” he said. “I’ve been gone for three years. You learn how to adjust to a different game and different pitching so it’s good to know you can still make adjustments and be successful.”
In the same article, Giants manager Gabe Kapler noted how difficult it is to make any comparisons — and not just with the KBO. “I don’t think it’s easy to evaluate performance in winter ball, I don’t think it’s easy to evaluate performance in Japan, in spring training or in September. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to hit at the major league level in the middle of the season is because that’s when you see the best dogs at their best.”
Ruf was having a great spring training at the time it was prematurely ended. In 32 plate appearances across 14 games, he had a .429 / .469 / 1.000 / 1.469 line. That sure beats the alternative.
Would that have been enough to make the Giants’ 2020 roster? Maybe. Maybe not.
The projections — based mainly on his last time in MLB — don’t’ see good things (.232 average, .693 OPS, per ZiPS — but maybe the changes to his game are real. There’s only one way to find out.
In any case, going overseas, playing the game you love, and finding such positive results shows that Ruf’s time in Korea can only be seen as a success.