When he was a young prospect coming up through the minor leagues, Rio Ruiz admits now that he didn’t take his defense as seriously as he should have.
He recalls being “kicked in the butt” and told to take it more seriously — a boot that has helped him grow into a reliable third baseman for the Orioles and one who rates as the best defensive third baseman in the American League.
With a little time, he might look at his meeting with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde last July in Arizona as a similar sliding-door moment at the plate. Ruiz was optioned to the minors with a message that if he wanted to be a big leaguer, it was time to start hitting like one.
“We talked a little about driving the ball, getting in his legs, but for me the underlying part of that conversation was get your confidence going,” Hyde said. “We believe in you and we want you to go down there and start letting it eat with the bat. When he came back up, you saw more aggressive swings. He took that in the offseason and added some muscle and added some really good weight to a really athletic kid already. Now, he’s stronger and swinging the bat with aggressiveness.
“He’s just taken that to the next level right now. He’s playing like he’s an everyday third baseman in the American League East.”
The resulting power has made Ruiz not only a middle-of-the-order presence for this competitive Orioles team, but a contender to be part of what executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is building in Baltimore. Elias drafted him in Houston and made Ruiz his first major league addition as a winter meetings waiver claim in December 2018.
Ruiz’s average fell to .217 with a hitless night Monday, but his OPS of .838 is still among the team’s best, and his six home runs are second to Anthony Santander. Combine the seven weeks at the end of August after his recall from the minors, and Ruiz’s .825 OPS in that span is best of any Orioles player.
He returned from his assignment at Triple-A Norfolk last season with more power almost immediately, armed with advice from rehabbing designated hitter Mark Trumbo, someone well-versed in hitting for power:
Trumbo, too, thought Ruiz wasn’t being aggressive enough and was sacrificing power by trying to steer the ball instead of having a swing equipped to drive a ball to any part of the field. Ruiz began driving the ball, then went into an offseason of experimentation to find a stance and swing that allowed him to get into that position more often.
The changes, which include Ruiz hitting from a more open stance since the start of spring training, were meant to allow him to ultimately end up in a position to drive the ball.
“Whether it was to open my stance or get a little leg kick, that’s what I did,” Ruiz said. “It was whatever I felt to get into the best position more consistently, and that was just the emphasis on it — how can I get in a better position?”
Ruiz looked like a stronger, more powerful bat in spring training, and carried that into summer camp. He honed it in daily hitting sessions with Chance Sisco during the quarantine, where they both enjoyed the open dialogue and laboratory mentality at their nearby ballfield.
His early power, plus his unique haircut that he refers to as a “classy mohawk,” have made him fun to watch so far.
It’s hard to imagine the hair changing. He said his wife, Michelle, cuts the sides but hasn’t touched the top or back. Ruiz said it will be easy to tell if the swing changes are taking hold beyond the first month of the season, too.
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“The more consistent I am with barreling balls and the positions I’m in, obviously I want to continue that, and continue the body of work I’ve had throughout the offseason and the shutdown and the course of the season,” he said. “I look to continue that, obviously, and I’m hopeful the results can stay there.”