After setting rookie steals record, Ruiz gets advice from Rickey

March 4th, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The first pitch of Monday’s 15-8 loss to the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark was at 1:06 p.m. local time. was on second base by 1:07 and crossing home plate by 1:08.

If the A’s are to take on a new look in the performance of a lineup that ranked last in MLB in runs scored last season, it’s going to look something like that.

Though the pitching on this particular day was a mess, the A’s are seeing some very good signs that the work their potential leadoff man Ruiz has put in to improve his offensive performance and take advantage of his blazing speed is paying dividends. He ripped a double down the left-field line to begin the game, one day after roping a double off the center-field wall against the Rangers. He also has a triple and a homer this spring.

“Every day I feel a little bit better,” Ruiz said through an interpreter. “I’ve been working on this a lot, and it’s coming together.”

There had rarely been a season like the one Ruiz had in his rookie year in ’23.

Not just by a rookie. By anybody.

Taking full advantage of the new rules environment, he stole 67 bags despite a paltry .309 on-base percentage. Only five previous players in the modern era had that many steals with an OBP that low:

Frank Taveras, 1977 Pirates: 70 steals, .306 OBP
Omar Moreno, 1980 Pirates: 96 steals, .306 OBP
Juan Samuel, 1984 Phillies: 72 steals, .307 OBP
Vince Coleman, 1986 Cardinals: 107 steals, .301 OBP
Willy Taveras, 2008 Rockies: 68 steals, .308 OBP

The takeaway is obvious.

“If we can get him on base at a .350-.360 clip,” manager Mark Kotsay said of Ruiz, “he’s got all the chance in the world to conquer what he did last year on the bases and really impact this team.”

Ruiz, who came to the A’s from Milwaukee in late 2022 in the three-team deal that sent catcher Sean Murphy to the Braves, wound up making 114 starts for his new club last year. If he’s to remain a regular in the A’s outfield, he’s going to have to earn it in a crowded mix that includes Lawrence Butler, JJ Bleday and Miguel Andujar.

So the A’s challenged Ruiz to make some mechanical tweaks at the plate. He’s made an adjustment to his head positioning, he’s trying to improve his posture in the box, and, after notching one of the worst walk rates in MLB last year (4 percent), he’s trying to make better swing decisions.

“He’s bought in,” Kotsay said, “and we’re seeing the results.”

Though Statcast data is not widely available in the Cactus League, the A’s say Ruiz’s exit velocities are up this spring. Considering Ruiz had a .345 slugging percentage that was fourth-worst among those with at least 450 plate appearances last year, there is plenty of room to improve in the power department.

“Last year, I was trying to get on base, I was trying to get singles to put myself on base,” Ruiz said. “But I know I can hit the ball hard. I’ve been working on my swing to make myself a better ballplayer.”

He’s also received some input from the best to ever do what he’s trying to do.

“If you look at a former Hall of Famer that played for us in Rickey Henderson, [Ruiz] brings that tool, that excitement,” Kotsay said. “Rickey had a long conversation with him.”

Asked for details about the advice imparted upon him by Henderson, Ruiz mentioned standing tall in the box but declined to give away any state secrets about Rickey's tips for stealing bases.

“It is amazing to have somebody like that,” Ruiz said. “I respect when Rickey Henderson tells me stuff. I never expected to even meet him. To have that chance to meet him and talk to him and get his knowledge is amazing.”

To not only lead the American League but set the league rookie record with 67 steals despite all-too-rarely reaching base is also amazing. So just think what Ruiz -- and, by extension, the A’s -- can accomplish if these offensive improvements in the Cactus League take root in the regular season.

Asked if he’s going to swipe 70 this year, a la 2023 Ronald Acuña Jr., Ruiz smiled.

“I always push for more,” he said. “But the first thing is keeping myself healthy and getting on base.”