Who is this man, and what has he done with Jose Ruiz? With his country’s life in the World Baseball Classic on the line, Venezuela manager Omar Lopez called upon Ruiz to get out of a jam. His squad was trailing 3-0 in the first inning with a runner on third and nobody out. Ruiz was tasked with keeping the game within striking distance after falling into an early hole against a potent United States offense.
His first opponent was none other than the former batting champion and teammate Tim Anderson. He threw three consecutive curveballs with a 1-1 count and got Anderson to chase two in the dirt for the strikeout. He then got Kyle Schwarber to fly out to David Peralta in left field to escape the jam.
One inning later, he was thrown back into the fire. Venezuela had cut the deficit to 3-2 with two on and nobody out. Due up was the dangerous trio of Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt.
The White Sox reliever proceeded to induce a double play off the bat of Betts, then strikeout Trout on a filthy curveball. The way he attacked Trout with four straight fastballs in that situation was impressive. The first two were high and inside, followed by a 96 mph heater outside. With a 2-1 count, he got Trout to foul off another inside fastball before getting him to chase a curveball just below the knees. He pounded him with fastballs to set him up for the hook.
Ruiz remaining unphased on the world stage with runnings in scoring position comes as a shock to anyone who has watched him pitch on the South Side. Last season the 28-year-old right-hander posted a 4.60 ERA thanks partly to his 12.5 percent walk rate in 60.2 innings.
The Jose Ruiz experience is a frustrating one. You know the stuff is there. He has a fastball in the upper 90s, complimented by a sinker and a sharp curveball that occasionally show flashes of brilliance. But you also have him giving up handfuls of runs during inopportune times.
Ruiz is awful in high-leverage situations. Opponents batted .500 off him in his 8.1 innings of high-leverage work in 2022. With runners in scoring position opposing hitters slashed .278/..391/.477 with eight home runs.
Seeing him pounding his chest after striking out the best hitter in baseball is a new side of Ruiz that many White Sox fans are not used to. Could this be the start of a breakout season for Ruiz?
“I love his intensity and focus of his pitches, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol said. “His demeanor. His ability to go back out for a second inning. His presence in the big stage has been really good.”
“He’s raised the bar for himself, Grifol continued. “That’s the Ruiz I’m expecting back here.”
It will be interesting to see how Grifol deploys Ruiz. Former manager Tony La Russa loved to use him. When La Russa took the helm in 2021, Ruiz made his first Opening Day roster.
Ruiz rewarded La Russa’s faith by holding batters to a .210 average and recorded career highs in appearances (59), innings pitched (65), strikeouts (63), and holds. He finished the season with a respectable 3.05 ERA. In 2022 he took a massive step back. His walk rate and opponent hard hit percentage ranked in the bottom four percentile in the MLB.
For the majority of his career, he has been a thrower who needs to learn how to become a great pitcher. Ruiz is a former catcher who was converted into a pitcher. The White Sox claimed him off waivers from San Diego in 2017. He made his debut with the big league club in 2019. He appeared in 40 games over six stints, posting a 6.08 ERA.
The following season he began the season on the injured list. Once he was reinstated from the IL, he was recalled from the Schaumberg training facility on August 9th. His stay in the big leagues lasted only a short time. He was optioned back to Schaumberg on August 18th, just three days after making his season debut. He was recalled a second time on September 17th. After serving up a walk-off home run to Jose Rameriez on the 22nd, he was optioned to Schaumberg for the rest of the season.
Between injuries and a position change, he only has 135 minor-league innings and 175 MLB innings under his belt. There is still plenty of room to grow. His experience in the WBC should only boost his confidence when he is logging inning out of the White Sox bullpen. For example, in his at-bat against Trout, he looked like a pitcher, strategically setting up Trout to chase a curveball.
With Liam Hendriks out, others are going to have to step up. While the bar hasn’t been set very high to this point, there is no reason that 2023 can’t be the best version of Jose Ruiz yet.