(video by Kimberly Contreras)
Armando Ruiz’s life changed on June 10th this season, and the change came without warning. When the Oakland A’s called his name in the 29th round of the 2015 amateur draft, the Alabama State alum was not expecting it.
“I hadn’t even received a call. From what my friend had told me, you usually get a call before it happens,” Ruiz said. “It was just out of the blue. It was probably one of the most exciting times of my life. It is when a dream comes true. Although I’m not on the big stage yet – I’m not in the big leagues yet – but I’m one step closer. Not everybody gets the opportunity that I did.”
Ruiz did receive a call soon after he was selected from his signing scout – well-respected A’s area scout Kelcey Mucker. As it turned out, Ruiz had met Mucker before the draft, but he had no idea the role Mucker was going to play in his baseball future.
“It was pretty funny because I met [Mucker] at Chipotle without knowing that he was going to be my scout,” Ruiz said. “He didn’t even tell me he was a scout with the Oakland A’s. I just recognized his voice when he called me.”
So began Ruiz’s journey in professional baseball, which has thus far taken him to the A’s minor league complex in Mesa, Arizona, where Ruiz competed in the Arizona Rookie League and then spent four weeks participating in the A’s fall Instructional League.
Throughout his career, Ruiz has never had trouble racking up big strike-out numbers. The Florida native struck-out 125 in 111 career innings for Alabama State and then followed that up with 24 strike-outs in 16.2 innings in his pro debut with the Arizona Rookie League A’s. His month at the A’s fall Instructional League has given Ruiz a different perspective on attacking hitters, however.
“In college, I would say that I looked for the strike-out once I realized that I could blow it by guys,” Ruiz said. “That was my thing in college. Now that I got to the pros, I would say that I learned to pitch throughout this last month in Instructs. I learned ways to not look for strike-outs, to look for soft contact.
“It’s actually helped out better. I thought the strike-out was the best thing that could happen to me because I do strike-out a lot of guys, but [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Garvin Alston, he preaches three pitches or less per batter. It’s really helped me out a lot to go out there and think ‘how can I get this guy out in three pitches or less through soft contact?’ I learned to pitch in Instructs for contact. It’s more efficient and I’m not relying on the strike-out.”
Ruiz and 45 other A’s prospects completed Oakland’s fall camp over the weekend. It is a grueling month-long program that is one part classroom instruction and one part on-the-field learning. Ruiz says that during Instructs he was able to take the time to apply some of the lessons he had been taught during the season but didn’t have time to implement. He said he also learned several new techniques and he left Arizona with checklist of things to work on this off-season.
“I was pretty much focusing [during Instructs] on staying through the ball more, having more spin on the ball and coming down [the mound] instead of opening up,” Ruiz said. “I got there and my first outing wasn’t the best. I thought it was going to be a long month. Through all of the work I put in, it turned into probably one of the best months I have put in on a diamond.”
Alston said Ruiz's progress during the Instructional League was "phenomenal".
"When he first came in, he was more of a slinger," Alston said. "The first thing that we did was we made him understand that he needed to leverage the baseball more and he picked it up rather quickly. Rather than get behind the ball, drive the ball down. His velocity went up a click. Instead of being an 89-90 guy, he was a 90-93 guy down here in Instructs. That was something that was definitely a positive surprise."
Ruiz spent his entire pro debut season in Arizona. After going to the A’s in the 29th round of this year’s draft, Ruiz spent the short-season in the Arizona Rookie League. He made 13 appearances and had a 4.24 ERA in 16.2 innings. He allowed just 14 hits and he struck-out 24 while posting a 2.11 GO/AO. Five of the eight runs Ruiz allowed came over the span of two back-to-back outings.
Many players have trouble adjusting to pitching in the triple digit heat of the Arizona desert, but Ruiz says his time playing in Florida growing up and in Alabama collegiately prepared him for the “Fire League.” Ruiz said the biggest adjustment has been pitching this late into the calendar year. He said his body was ready for the break when the Instructional League concluded.
“It was fun, exciting, but at the same time, it was about time that my arm needed a rest,” Ruiz said. “I haven’t been used to throwing for so long. I’m looking forward to getting better. I know what I need to do. I just can’t wait for spring training.”
Ruiz points to his fastball as his best pitch and says that he relies on his ability to be able to spot the pitch. He also throws a sinker, a slider and a change-up.
“I have always been taught to spot my fastball,” Ruiz said. “That’s the first thing that I learned. When I can’t rely on my off-speed, I know that I can spot the fastball. That’s always there. That’s helped me a lot in getting those groundballs. Not leaving the ball high and being able to use the sequence they gave us. Really, the sequences have helped me a lot, too, and having to keep the ball low.”
Throughout most of his collegiate career and during his pro debut, Ruiz has been in a late-inning relief role. He relishes that role and says that coming in with the game on the line fits his personality.
“As a reliever, your name can be called at any time,” Ruiz said. “I love being in the pressure of close games and I like my adrenaline flowing. I feel like that is when I am at my best, when I am in a situation where there is a lot of pressure. I love the pressure situations the most. It’s a great feeling. That’s what I love about baseball. I love being under pressure.”
Ruiz is keeping his goals for the off-season simple: keep working on the mechanical improvements he made during Instructs and get stronger through the A’s off-season weight-training program. He is already counting down the days until spring training beings.
“I can’t wait for spring training 2016 to roll around,” Ruiz said. “I’ve heard it’s another experience.
“I can’t wait.”