Rio Ruiz was just as surprised as anybody that he started the season on the Braves’ Triple-A roster, given the miserable year he had in Double-A the year before.
“Honestly, I thought I was going back to Double-A,” he said. “I wasn’t going to argue if they sent me there.”
But both he and the Braves were rewarded for the leap of the faith they took on their top third base prospect. After hitting .233 a year ago in Double-A Mississippi, Ruiz is hitting .271 for Triple-A Gwinnett, which opens the International League playoffs Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio.
“I think third base was a weakness (at the Triple-A level) and they said, ‘What the heck, let’s give it a chance and see what he can do,’” said Gwinnett manager John Moses, who was promoted from Gwinnett’s hitting coach to manager in the weeks following Brian Snitker’s promotion to Atlanta. “Sometimes you don’t want to bring a kid too far along early in his career, but he’s handled it well and he’s done a good job.”
Ruiz drove in one of Gwinnett’s six runs in the IL South Division-clinching 6-2 win over Charlotte in Monday’s season finale. The RBI was Ruiz’s team-leading 62nd and it came in fitting fashion. He beat out a fielder’s choice, serving as a microcosm of the effort he has put into remaking his reputation as one of the Braves’ top position player prospects.
The Braves acquired Ruiz along with pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman from the Astros for Evan Gattis in January 2015. Ruiz proceeded to flop in his first year in the Braves organization. Projected as a power hitter and potentially the Braves third baseman of the future, he hit only five home runs in 127 games for Mississippi while slugging just .324.
Ruiz doubled his home run total this year to 10, while leading Gwinnett with 24 doubles.
“From last year to this year, it’s night and day,” Ruiz said.
The 22-year-old from Covina, Calif., said the turnaround started following a conversation he had with Braves president of baseball operations John Hart during instructional league last fall. Hart laid out some goals for Ruiz, which included requesting he get in better physical shape, but Ruiz said Hart also reinforced “I was still one of their guys.”
“It was great to hear, knowing that they do want me here after that season in ’15,” Ruiz said. “I took that into my offseason work.”
In addition to slimming down, Ruiz said he got back to his roots this offseason. He and his dad, Rudy Ruiz, started working out at a softball field across the street from his house. Ruiz said he used to hit in the batting cages belonging to the now-abandoned grade school from the time he was 7 until high school.
This winter, his parents, his older sister Alex, 26, and 19-year-old twin siblings, brother Noah and sister Cameron, all worked out with him, shagging flies, hitting ground balls and catching throws. Both the time with his family and working out on a rock-laden, all-dirt infield that isn’t maintained anymore helped him regain a little perspective.
“I was getting real bad hops, but it forced me to work on my feet, it forced me to work on my hands,” Ruiz said. “It was our old stomping ground. It put things into perspective on how much of a ride this has been and how grateful I am to be in this position.”
Ruiz said he came to spring training feeling like “I belonged.” He showed it by hitting .310 in April for Gwinnett and then steadying himself after a May slump (.198). He has hit close to .290 since June 1.
Ruiz said he came into the season focused on using all fields, which in his case meant making an effort to hit the ball to his pull side, right field. The left-handed hitter has loved the opposite field throughout his career.
“Ever since I was a kid, (left field) was my safe haven,” Ruiz said. “That’s where I wanted to always go. But up here, you can’t try to guide a pitch. You can’t try to take a ball on the inside to left center. You’ve got to hit the ball where it’s pitched. This year, I’ve tried to use the whole field as best as I could.”
Moses said Ruiz has been better at getting the bat head out and squaring balls up.
“He has a better approach at the plate, allowing his hands to work a lot better than they did last year,” Moses said. “He’s getting good pitches to hit and hitting for average. What he’s hitting right now compared to last year, it’s a huge improvement at this level. But defensively, he’s doing well too. He’s made some good plays. He’s really gotten on the radar as far as his future, being up in the major leagues. I know everybody in the organization is very happy with his progress.”