If every at-bat and every swing from Chris Davis in spring training led to a series of dissections, discussions and debates, Rio Ruiz’s trips to the plate by comparison seemed to be shrouded in secrecy.
The player with the second-highest average on the team and the third-highest on-base and slugging percentages didn’t get nearly as much attention.
There isn’t a dome at Ed Smith Stadium, but it’s possible to operate beneath a cone of silence.
The spring also was important for Ruiz, who endured a trip to the minors last season and needed to convince manager Brandon Hyde that he should break camp as the starting third baseman with Hanser Alberto shifting to second.
Ruiz appeared to secure the job until baseball shut down on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He already gained Hyde’s trust defensively and went 11-for-25 (.440) in nine Grapefruit League games, including three doubles and a home run. He also walked twice and struck out only three times.
Who led the Orioles in hits? That would be Ruiz. His 1.144 OPS was second to Davis, who slashed .467/.615/1.067.
Ruiz batted .232/.306/.376 last year in 413 plate appearances. The birth of his son, Luca James, two days after his demotion to the minors qualified as the obvious highlight of his summer. Perhaps his walk-off home run against the Astros on Aug. 11, a day after he homered in the 23-2 blowout loss, ranks as the runner-up.
Hitting coach Don Long was in his first season in the organization. The same as Ruiz, who was selected off waivers from the Braves at the Winter Meetings.
“Rio, if you look at his year last year, the thing that I really like about him is he’s not a big chaser,” Long said last week. “If you look all around the zone - up, down, in and out - there’s not a lot of counts and situations where he’s going to chase a lot of pitches outside the zone. And that’s huge for a hitter at that level because the guys they’re facing, their stuff is so good.
“But there are a lot of times when he did swing, he was not in a very strong position to swing. He would kind of drift out over his front side and it would put him in position that when he contacted the ball, he’d put a lot of balls in play on the ground and a lot of balls in play on the ground with not a lot on them.”
This is where Long, the teacher, came up with his curriculum.
“We started the process last year of just, every time he’d stride, getting him into his strongest position to hit,” Long said. “So now when he does swing, he’s swinging from a position of strength rather than kind of a compromised, weaker position. And he was very diligent with it and he did make some strides.
“The challenge of making those adjustments in-season is that you have to go out and perform on a nightly basis, and that’s the challenge for a lot of guys trying to make - it’s not a swing adjustment, it’s a position to hit adjustment - and it’s still very challenging. But he took that into the winter and he really worked on that and it was a noticeable difference when he came back, in his work and when he transitioned into games, how much that really impacted him.
“You started to see way less balls on the ground, a much better position to hit, and the ability to hit the ball on a line and in the air. Kind of all over the field. So I was really pleased with his progress.”
The key now is to hold onto those lessons, build on them, and avoid slipping into old habits.
If there’s an actual season to be played, of course.
The league will give its latest proposal to the Major League Baseball Players Association later today after receiving approval from the owners. Medical experts also need to approve or nothing is going to happen.
Multiple reports detailed how the schedule would consist of about 80 games with teams confined to playing within their division and the opposite division in the other league. East versus East, Central versus Central, etc.
The goal is to play games in each team’s major league ballpark rather than in a few states and at spring training facilities. Shoot for as much normalcy as possible under the circumstances.