SCOTTSDALE — Darin Ruf came back to the United States partially so his wife, Libby, could give birth to their first daughter, Olive, here rather than in South Korea. The birth went well last March despite the pandemic that was beginning to envelope the world. He was able to make the Giants’ roster and form a potent left-field platoon for much of the season. He proved, after three seasons in the KBO and at age 34, that he is a major leaguer.
For a lot of reasons, he settled into a comfortable major league life that he hadn’t experienced before. The funniest reason, though, he expressed well.
“It was the first season I didn’t get fired at any point or sent down, so that’s always a positive,” the first baseman and left fielder said with a smile Friday. “I feel like I had a very defined role and was able to play well in that role and help the team in the areas where I could help them.”
Ruf debuted in 2012 with Philadelphia and was up and down between the big-league club and minors until being traded after the 2016 season. He was dealt to Farhan Zaidi’s Dodgers — the Giants president of baseball operations has liked the profile for a long while — but he ended up going overseas for three years.
He came back and was quick to praise the data and technology the Giants use and possess; it was hard to get good swing analysis in the KBO, when he has said he sometimes would have to study TV footage. He found his swing under the tutelage of Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind (these guys need a nickname), and then lost it over the break from camp 1.0 to 2.0. He referenced stride length and imperceptible things that are “not drastic, but it’s enough to change a ball that you might square up to a ball that you’ll foul off or a ball that you might swing and miss.”
He spent the season rediscovering the stroke, which resulted in an .887 OPS across 100 plate appearances, and the Giants couldn’t have asked for much more from the slugger.
Because of the lack of the designated hitter this year, though, they will ask more from the slugger.
Ruf is getting plenty of reps in left field, where he struggled last season, and first base, where he barely played because of Brandon Belt’s brilliance. Belt’s offseason surgery and early-camp illness has led to more Ruf looks at first, and he’ll need to prove to the Giants he can be serviceable.
If he’s in the day’s game, he said, he’ll focus on wherever he’s set to play (and is in Friday’s lineup at first). If he’s not in games, he’ll take reps at first and left. He has to carry a few gloves wherever he goes, and the Giants are keeping him busy.
His fit is far from perfect, specifically with the Giants and generally in the National League. This year there will be shorter roster, set to hold 26 players. As an outfielder, he’s redundant with Austin Slater, who also crushes lefties. As an infielder, Wilmer Flores could play first against southpaws while Donovan Solano would start at second.
Gabe Kapler has said he’s a valued bench bat not just against lefties but righties, as well, against whom he slashed .310/.429/.448 in (just) 35 plate appearances last year. The question will be whether there’s roster room for such a specialized player.
But there’s so much to like with the bat, and he’s off to a nice start, homering Thursday off righty Connor Sadzeck.
If he sounds pretty relaxed about the camp competition and roster fit, it’s for good reason: Comparing last year and this year, when he wasn’t sure about his professional future, when he was concerned with his family’s present, he’s comfortable.
“The first word that comes to mind — I mean it almost sounds like a cliche — but extremely thankful for the things that I have going right in my life that a lot of people don’t,” Ruf said over Zoom. “The opportunity to play baseball, my wonderful family, wonderful new daughter that was born in March. So many things to be thankful for.”