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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Better Know a Red #21 - Vern Ruhle

With Vern Ruhle's passing, I thought I'd try to do a retrospective on his playing career. I'm a bit out of my element when evaluating player performance in the '70's and '80's, but I'll give it a try.

The right-handed Ruhle was a 17th-round selection by the Detroit Tigers in the 1972 amateur draft out of Olivet College, Michigan. By today's standards, he advanced very quickly through the minor leagues, making his major league debut in this third professional season at 21 years old. In 1975 he began his first full season with the Tigers. He performed well as a rookie, going 11-12 with a 4.03 ERA in 190 innings (100 ERA+) that season, ultimately becoming the Tigers' #2 starter behind Mickey Lolich that year. He put up a similar year his second season with Detriot (9-12, 3.92 ERA in 199.7 innings), but faltered badly in 1977 (3-5, 5.70 ERA in 66.3 innings), which ultimately led to his release.

Ruhle immediately found a home with the Houston Astros in 1978, but seemed to be used as a spot starter and long man out of the bullpen for several years. In 1980 and 1981, however, he secured a larger role in the rotation of the back to back Houston playoff teams along with fellow pitchers Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, and (in 1981) Don Sutton. Other players on those teams included Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz, Art Howe, and Bruce Bochy.

Ruhle started a playoff games in both 1980 and 1981 performed well both years, despite facing two formidable opposing pitchers. In 1980, he started Game 4 against Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies and held them scoreless through seven innings, but allowed three consecutive singles to start the 8th inning, all of which would score. While the Astros rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the 9th, absolving Ruhle of the loss, the bullpen yielded two runs in the 10th inning to lose the game 5-3.

In 1981, Ruhle faced off against Fernando Valenzuela in game 4 of the NL Divisional series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ruhle was excellent, going eight innings and allowing only 2 runs on 4 hits. Unfortunately, Valenzuela didn't allow a run until the 9th inning, defeating the Astros 2-1.

Following the 1981 season, Ruhle's role gradually shifted from the rotation to the bullpen, where he remained effective for the remainder of his career. His final season was with the 1986 AL-West Champion California Angels. Ruhle did get a final appearance in the playoffs that season, throwing two-thirds of an inning and allowing two runs. Fortunately, luck finally was kind to Ruhle in the postseason, as the Angels rallied for three in the 9th and one in the 11th for a 4-3 win against the Boston Red Sox--who, of course, would go on to win the league championship series and then catastrophically fail in the World Series vs. the Mets (edited--thanks to Ken for the correction!).

Here are his career MLB stats:
Year/Tm IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP ERA+ WARP3
1974/DET 33.0 2.7 1.6 0.3 0.283 2.73 3.62 140 0.9
1975/DET 190.0 3.2 3.1 0.8 0.270 4.03 4.79 100 3.7
1976/DET 199.7 4.0 2.7 0.9 0.299 3.92 4.50 94 3.6
1977/DET 66.3 3.7 2.0 1.2 0.308 5.70 4.96 76 0.5
1978/HOU 68.0 3.6 2.6 0.0 0.247 2.12 3.33 157 2.4
1979/HOU 66.3 4.5 1.1 1.2 0.253 4.07 4.42 86 0.5
1980/HOU 159.3 3.1 1.6 0.4 0.259 2.37 3.68 138 4.5
1981/HOU 102.0 3.4 1.8 0.5 0.263 2.91 3.82 113 3.1
1982/HOU 149.0 3.4 1.4 0.7 0.297 3.93 4.06 85 0.7
1982/HOU 114.7 3.4 2.8 1.0 0.244 3.69 4.94 93 2.2
1984/HOU 90.3 6.0 2.9 0.5 0.347 4.58 3.65 73 -0.3
1985/CLE 125.0 3.9 2.2 1.2 0.286 4.32 4.77 96 2.8
1986/CAL 47.7 4.3 1.3 0.9 0.255 4.15 4.10 99 0.8

Ruhle seems to have epitomized the finesse pitcher. For his career, he had a superb walk rate of only 1.8 per nine innings. This helped offset his fairly low strikeout totals, and enabled him to be consistently effective throughout his career. By today's standards, his HR/9 rate was also quite low, although I believe that this was closer to average in the period in which he was pitching. Overall, Ruhle was an average to below average pitcher--though one who was consistently effective--for most of his career. He relied on control, guile, and knowledge of how to pitch to be successful despite not having overpowering stuff. It is likely those same traits that made him a successful pitching coach.

Sources:
Baseball Cube
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
Astros Daily