It was eleven months ago when Braves president of baseball operations John Hart took third-base prospect Rio Ruiz aside during the Instructional League in Florida and delivered a message as tactfully, but succinctly, as he could.
Ruiz was coming off a disappointing season in Double-A, having hit .229 with five homers and a .649 OPS, and the Braves wanted him to know he could and should be better than that, that his conditioning was preventing him from realizing his potential.
“It was just like, ‘Hey, we love you, we want you to take ownership of your career, take that and see what you can do with it,’” said Ruiz, who is nearly 6 feet 2 and weighed 230 pounds at the time. He said Hart told him, “’You’re a big kid as it is, let’s just try to lose some weight and be a little more athletic.’
“I took that to heart and worked at it this whole season and last offseason, and I’m going to continue to work on it next offseason.”
Less than a year later, Ruiz is a lean but muscular 200 pounds, and he’s in the big leagues after batting .271 with 10 homers, 62 RBIs and a .755 OPS in 133 games for Triple-A Gwinnett as one of the younger players (22) in the International League.
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The Braves selected Ruiz’s contract after Gwinnett lost Friday in the IL championship series. Ruiz didn’t know what to say when Gwinnett manager John Moses told him late Friday that he getting called to the majors for the first time. Actually, he knew what to say but couldn’t say it.
“Really at a loss for words,” Ruiz said, smiling Saturday as he recalled the conversation. “I tried to say ‘thank you’ but it wouldn’t come out. I just gave Johnny Mo a big hug and told him thank you for everything that he helped me with through the season, and that was that. And immediately ran out to call my family. It was awesome.”
Ruiz was a two-sport star at Bishop Amat High School in the Los Angeles area, a quarterback/defensive back who would’ve gone to Southern California on a football scholarship if hadn’t signed with the Houston Astros after they selected him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.
The Braves got Ruiz from the Astros along with pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman in the January 2015 trade that sent slugger Evan Gattis and pitcher James Hoyt to the Astros.
Ruiz stock was on the rise in 2014 when he hit .293 with 50 extra-base hits (11 homers) and an .823 OPS for the Astros’ high-A affiliate. But even after he struggled for much of his first season with the Braves in Double-A, they decided to bump him to Triple-A, which surprised even Ruiz.
He sizzled with a .381 average and 1.006 OPS in his first 17 games for Gwinnett, then hit just .182 with one homer and a .551 OPS in his next 37 games, with more than twice as many strikeouts (44 in 121 at-bats) as walks (20).
“When I went through that rough stretch in May I was just trying to do too much,” Ruiz said. “Things kind of like I was trying to do back in Double-A, just trying to do too much, put the ball over the fence. It didn’t really work out for me and I just had a talk to Johnny Mo and he settled me down.
“That team, of course, helped me out a whole bunch. That team was awesome. And I just kind of got back to where I was just hitting line drives all over, and home runs were accidental.”
Ruiz hit .285 with 25 extra-base hits (seven homers) in 78 games over the rest of the regular season, with a .361 OBP and .427 slugging percentage (.788 OPS). The Braves rewarded him with his first call to the big leagues.
That conversation with Hart was a game-changer for Ruiz, who spent the winter following a strict diet for the first time and working out at a state-of-the-art fitness center in operated by his agent, Scott Boras, exclusively for Boras clients.
So they could be near the facility in Newport Beach, Calif., Ruiz rented a place in Orange County with Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez, another California native and Boras client. Ruiz said they planned to do the same thing this winter.
“(Losing weight) wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “There were times where I wanted to just eat anything in sight. But it’s my career and I thought back to what (Hart) had told me. If he said that and it’s coming from him, then obviously it means something. I listened to it, and here I am. And I’m thankful for that.”
He’s also thankful for advice he’s received from Braves players and Gwinnett teammates over the past nine months. Ruiz said he got a lot out of being in Braves major league spring training, where his locker was next to veteran Kelly Johnson’s.
“Just continuing to learn, that was the biggest thing,” he said. “Because I always had questions for everybody. When Kelly was here I always asked him questions. When Gordon (Beckham) was there – and he’s here – I’m going to continue to ask questions. Along with guys in Gwinnett. I just always ask questions.
“The biggest thing for me is Kelly said, and it really stuck to me, is, ‘If you think you should be somewhere, you should be. And if you think you should be lifting, you should be. And if you think you should be taking ground balls, you should be.’ Just stuff like that. I really took that, and I probably won’t ever forget it.”