Ruiz hopes revamped swing is ticket to Big League success

Rio Ruiz should not feel like a stranger this spring. However, his sense of urgency may be at an all-time high. The Atlanta Braves have invited the third base prospect to big league camp in each of the last four seasons, but Ruiz is hoping this latest opportunity is the one that leads him to Atlanta to stay.

It won’t be easy. But he’s never expected that to be the case.

Ruiz is competing for the Braves’ starting third base job along with fellow youngster Johan Camargo, a man who went from unproven commodity to productive major leaguer last season. One was thriving while the other was struggling, but a new swing could level the playing field for Ruiz this season.

“I think 2017 was a big year for me in the sense that I was able to learn,” said Ruiz. “I learned about myself and learned about how good these guys are up at this level. You’re going to constantly need to make adjustments, whether it’s big ones or minor ones.”

Armed with the knowledge he collected during his time in Atlanta, Ruiz headed into the offseason eager to make changes to his swing. He sought out Doug Latta, the same hitting coach who helped Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner turn his career around.

Latta espouses creating more of an uppercut swing. If you couldn’t tell by the rising number of home runs in recent years, an increasing number of big league hitters have focused on hitting the ball in the air with greater frequency.

Count Ruiz among them. He realized it was time to adapt.

“I just knew with the things I was doing that it wasn’t going to last very long,” Ruiz said. “I was getting exploited pretty often and pretty regularly.

“I got away with things here and there, but the first thing I told myself going into the winter was I needed to make adjustments. So, that’s the first thing I did. I made the adjustments I had to make and I’m going to continue making the adjustments.”

For starters, he’s going to have to find a way to prove he can handle the steady diet of off-speed stuff he faced in 2017. Ruiz batted just .193 and struck out 41 times in 150 major league at-bats. According to FanGraphs, only Matt Kemp (48.1 FB%) saw a lower percentage of fastballs than Ruiz (49.8 FB%) among Braves hitters with at least 150 PA. Conversely, only Ozzie Albies (19.3 CH%) and Danny Santana (19.5 CH%) saw a higher percentage of changeups than Ruiz (18.5 CH%) last season.

Three years ago, Ruiz was challenged by the Braves front office to devote the winter that followed a challenging 2015 season to getting in better shape. He answered that challenge and has maintained that commitment level to winter training in each of the two offseasons that followed

“A lot of work,” Ruiz said of his offseason regimen.  “I didn’t really take too much time off because I really just wanted to make adjustments within in my game. I feel like I’ve done that and I’m really looking forward to this spring and this year in general.”

This spring could very well be Ruiz’s last, best opportunity to prove himself with the Braves.

He will turn 24 years old in May and has spent the last two seasons on the shuttle between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta. Overall, Ruiz belted 20 home runs among 52 extra-base hits in 538 at-bats. He also struck out a career-high 151 times. That’s a number Ruiz would like to trim back to a career-norm.

Third base was one of the major question areas that new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was looking to address over the winter. Since the Braves opted not to jump into the free agent market or make a significant trade to address that need, the duo of Ruiz and Camargo will compete for playing time at the hot corner this season.

With third base and a roster spot up for grabs, Ruiz is focused on making a good impression.

“Just as it is for anybody else who’s competing for it, my goal is to try and win it, plain and simple,” said Ruiz. “If you don’t win it, you just open up some eyes and let them know that you are close and you are ready to take that job full-time.

“It’s just all about competition. Whether you’re fighting for a spot or you have a spot locked in, it’s never really, fully yours. You’re always competing and you’re always trying to get better. And I think that’s what it’s going to be. I think it’s going to be a healthy competition over there, and anywhere for that matter. Hopefully the hard work pays off.”

While the bat always plays a substantial part to earn regular playing time, Anthopoulos stated his desire to improve his club’s defense. That’s something Ruiz has been working tirelessly on over the past few years. Like many of Atlanta’s young infielders, Ruiz has spent extra time working with infield instructor Ron Washington to help elevate that facet of his game.

“Obviously, if you make a big adjustment with the bat and show them that you really can hit and that you do belong here, the glove needs to be there as well,” said Ruiz.

“It’s easier said than done. Balls are hit a lot harder and a lot more often they’re squared up, so you’ve got to be ready to go at all times. You never shy away from defense, you always work on it, like every facet of your game. That’s what I’ve done and taken into account as well.”

This spring, Ruiz is also putting on the first baseman’s mitt. Added versatility may be an X factor that could help secure a spot on the 25-man roster. With Matt Adams gone, the Braves don’t have a true first baseman to serve as a back-up for Freddie Freeman.

It’s another chance for Ruiz to prove himself. The early returns have been encouraging.

Unlike years past, Atlanta did not bring an overwhelming number of veterans to camp this spring. While Ruiz and many young players still have much to prove, they should at least feel right at home with plenty of familiar faces in the Atlanta clubhouse.

“The vibe is a lot looser,” said Ruiz. “Everybody knows each other. They’ve played with each other for a couple years now. That plays a big factor with being comfortable with each other.”

Atlanta’s rebuild is stretching into its fourth year, but that time has helped the next generation of Braves begin building a new culture. It’s one they hope will be marked with a return to winning baseball.

“It’s been building,” said Ruiz when asked about the state of the minor league system. “Like everybody knows, we’ve played with each other, not only up here, but in the minors as well. It’s going to be fun. There’s a lot of chemistry between us and it’s only going to grow from there.”

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