Trend Spotting: Talking the 2015 Tribe with John Grimm

Am I simply ignoring the remainder of the 2014 season? Of course not.

I continue to be compelled to watch this Indians team because the youngsters have kept them competitive. Though we often dismiss experience as we attempt to value it correctly, I cannot help but think it is invaluable to these guys’ development.

When you are in a wild card race and you get to watch Zach Walters do this in a big moment you cannot help but dream on the future.

Walters-HR

Of course, this is just one of many moments which have been an absolute delight during this summer’s stretch run. As a person who has covered the Indians minor league system a little too much and is just generally in love with prospects breaking into the show, contending on the backs of guys like Walters, Jose Ramirez, and Tyler Holt is all you could ask for out of baseball. This team has become incredibly compelling despite the fact that their odds remain low, because we are tantalized by what is coming.

Tantalized because we are watching a young core which is growing up together, is under control for years to come and isn’t reliant on anyone who is due to leave in the near future.

So I ask you, for a moment to exit your current frame of mind; the frame of mind focused on contention in 2014 and to dream on how good this team can be in 2015 as well as what it might look like.

Thankfully, John Grimm is joining me to pass about ideas on how to most-effectively assemble the 2015 Indians as well as whether or not they can be favorites for a division title.

The first question we must address is right field, where do the Indians go? Ideally, the Indians trade Murphy for an irrelevant d-level prospect, clear his salary and spend a portion of their payroll signing a league average starter for right field or you make a youthful transition to James Ramsey.

Another strategy that has been bandied about by mildly-irrational dreamers like myself is to move the defensively haphazard Kipnis to right, and go young up the middle with Ramirez and Lindor.

Thus, the question for you John, with all other decisions being separate, what is the answer in right?

Grimm: On one hand, I’ll always approve of running with decent pre-arb guys. Ramsey’s generally been graded as a solid average player, and the bat is delivering in AAA, to the tune of a .300/.389/.527 line. Granted, baseballs are to Columbus’s Huntington Park as boyfriends are to Taylor Swift – they leave – but that’s still an extremely good line even factoring in home ballpark. Scouts (i.e.: BP) like his bat, as do the numbers; it’s not a huge stretch to envision Ramsey Roundball doing enough with the bat to be a 1-to-2 WAR player in right field. In any case, Swisher’s been expected to make a return to the outfield in 2015, and I’m inclined to believe that a DH-RF rotation of Ramsey and Swisher would be an altogether decent position. But whether it’s Swisher, Ramsey, Holt, or possibly Tyler Naquin come June, Cleveland’s right field spot will likely be filled by internal candidates, and – one notes – that excludes David Murphy. On the other hand, we’ve run numbers by each other, and it would appear that, not counting Mike Aviles’s player option, Cleveland’s payroll of all players is probably going to be in the range of $68M to $70M including approximate arbitration costs. When one realizes that Bourn and Swisher are making a combined $28M in 2015, that number seems rather staggeringly low, which surprised me, initially; I had to check that I did the math correctly. For reference, the 2014 payroll was around $84M – if they shed Murphy’s contract, they’ll have a payroll lower than 2014’s by a differential slightly more than $20M. The $16-22M range is the relevant number – assuming that they’ll have a similar payroll allotment in 2015, that’s how much they’ll have free. Given the general dearth of impact outfielders on the free agent market, however, I’m not sure dropping $36M over two years for Nick Markakis is the wisest use of funds. Internal candidates, at least in right field, are probably the way to go.

Hattery: Ultimately, I agree due to Ramsey’s development as well as a few other factors. However, I am of the volition that Swisher getting any starts in right field is in many ways tempting fate. The first being that Swisher the defender in right field is a bad proposition, that if we create a rotation between Swisher and Ramsey at right and designated hitter, Swisher should not play more than 20 games in the field. At this point, I would attempt to protect my investment in Swisher, which means treating him gingerly in how frequently he defends, perhaps 20 games in right, 30 games at first base and all the rest at designated hitter.

As for the free agent route, it appears to be nonexistent. On the other hand, Nori Aoki for two years and $20 million would interest me. However, Ramsey probably offers the same production value at less than a tenth of the cost and the money remaining is probably best used supplementing another position.

I concede the shift of Kipnis to right field, no matter how interesting it may be, is probably an illogical move. The argument is generally based on a prisoner of the moment response to his current production and issues defensively up the middle. With that said, the Indians have another key decision to make surrounding the shortstop position and the use of super utility types.

The issue being, how do the Indians handle the following four players next year; Jose Ramirez, Mike Aviles, Zach Walters and Francisco Lindor? Secondarily, can the Indians afford to waste 2.5 million on a replacement level player in Aviles, and are you really getting your best value out of Francisco Lindor if you continue to delay the inevitable promotion?

Grimm: The elephant in the room when it comes to the up-the-middle situation is Jose Ramirez. If one deems him to be a true talent 3 WAR second baseman, Kipnis becomes expendable. I find this premise exceedingly optimistic. To be a 3 WAR player, Ramirez would need to find some way to be about 10 runs better than average while playing a full season. In the most probable case, that would mean league-average offense and defense that’s 10 runs above average. A 3 WAR J-Ram requires both of these components, and while assuming any player will be 10 runs better than average on defense is a little irresponsible, it’s the offensive component that’s particularly audacious. What follows is going to be an exceedingly critical take on Jose Ramirez, not because I don’t think he can be a major league contributor (I do!) but because the proposition is whether he can unseat Kipnis, who, despite an injury-hampered 2014, has still averaged approximately 3 WAR per 600 plate appearances.

Ramirez’s offense will almost certainly be built on batting average and baserunning. A popular comparison – indeed, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA top comparison – is Jose Altuve – a player whose offense is low BB, low K, low HR, high BABIP/average, high SB. At face value, the comparison is decent, these traits describe Ramirez, and – hey! – Altuve’s having a 3-4 WAR season. Hence, it would appear at face value as though the Ramirez optimism has some real statistical backing.

This statistical backing is premised upon confusion, however, in that the degrees of game power vary noticeably between the two. Within the broad framework of ‘low power’ guys, there’s a spectrum of how low that power actually is, the difference between Michael Bourn’s power and, say, Ben Revere’s. That difference results in Revere having a .310 batting average with a .364 slugging percentage compared to Bourn’s .267 BA and .380 slugging percentage. Revere’s power is so scarce, in fact, that his overall batting output is lower than Bourn’s. Low-power is not a catch-all, and there are meaningful differences between the degrees of power among that same group.

In turn, then, one can use this as a prism to conceptualize the differences between Ramirez and Altuve. With a minimum of 100 PAs at any one level season, the highest ISO that J-Ram has posted in the minors has been .139, that at the aforementioned hitter-friendly Huntington Park. Minor-league Altuve, on the other hand, has posted ISOs greater than .180 on four separate minor league stops. In turn, Ramirez’s weighted average ISO for his minor league career is .105, compared to Altuve’s average ISO of .163, so there does exist a very real gap between Altuve’s minor league power and Ramirez’s own.

Even in spite of posting altogether good minor league power numbers, Altuve’s power translated to only a .103 ISO in the majors for his career. It’s not as though Altuve’s career ISO is horrifically limiting to an offensive profile; it is, in fact, comparable to Michael Bourn’s career power – capable of getting the occasional home run but more defined by his gap/corner power. To this end, Altuve’s build is thicker, about ten pounds heavier than Ramirez despite being three (or four) inches shorter. Currently, Ramirez’s major league average ISO is .077; if one assumes a similar percentage decrease in isolated power from minors to majors for Altuve and his comparable Ramirez, it’s not clear that Ramirez has any higher ISO to regress to.

Even given that Altuve’s batting profile is similar to Ramirez’s, excluding the very real difference in power, Altuve has posted a 102 wRC+ over his career – namely, in spite of a .299 batting average that has been 20th in the majors since his 2011 debut, in spite of power that still outstrips Ramirez, and in spite of a batting profile that in every other sense mirrors Ramirez’s, he has managed to be almost exactly league average with the bat since his debut – 2014, after all, has been Altuve’s best year at the plate by far.

And remember: this is Ramirez’s favorable comp. For Ramirez to hit for Altuve’s average, he’ll need to hit for a .320+ BABIP perennially; in most cases, docking 20 or 30 points from a player’s minor league BABIP gives one a rough approximation of their major-league BABIP. Ramirez’s minor-league BABIP across all levels is .326. His BABIP might optimistically be projected at .310. His career BABIP is .298. He doesn’t have Altuve’s hit tool and he doesn’t have Altuve’s power. Even factoring in an aggressive but probably reasonable +4 runs from baserunning per 600 PAs, that does not constitute an average offensive profile. Altuve’s hit tool received extremely wide praise; Ramirez’s hit tool, his carrying offensive trait, has received tepid compliments and 55 grades. Whether one bases their opinions on respected scouts or stats, a ton of unsubstantiated optimism is required to believe that Ramirez is going to be near average on offense.

That’s the aggressive take. If I were compiling the most aggressive argument against Ramirez I possibly could, the above would be it. It’s vicious, it tears down the prospects of a player that I love watching, and it’s unilaterally aggressive. I love watching Ramirez play and I think he could be a valuable member of a major-league club based on his defense, but there’s a jarring lack of scope regarding what Ramirez offers relative to Kipnis. To compare the former to the latter requires an equally critical take on each, one that factors in track record. Kipnis has taken a ton of heat this season; when one applies the depth and breadth of the criticism Kipnis has received to Jose Ramirez, you get a horrifically bleak picture. As of early September 2014, the argument for ‘Jose Ramirez: Starting Second Baseman’ is premised either on fiendish optimism or double standards.

That said, the argument for ‘Jose Ramirez: Bench Guy Extraordinaire’ is an extremely easy one. Aviles makes $2.5M in 2015 and has been approximately replacement level. If I were to project the dollars-per-WAR for his 2015 projection, it’s likely that Aviles’s #DIV/0! dollars per WAR would be substantially above the market rate of ~$6M per WAR. Jose Ramirez’s defense is probably good enough to account for 1 WAR per 400 plate appearances, and he’ll be making the league minimum. That’s an incredibly valuable asset.

As for Lindor, I feel like there was a compelling argument to call him up three weeks into the 2014 season. That didn’t happen, so there’s no real choice but to wait for three weeks to start 2015. I’ve been greatly annoyed by the line of logic that asserts, ‘If we call him up now, we might ONLY get a year of Elvis Andrus instead of prime A-Rod,’ as if the latter was possible, but that was the logic that prevailed in the Indians front office. So if the probably-sufficient Zach Walters serves in a utility role while Ramirez starts at shortstop for the first few weeks, there’s no crunch. When Lindor gets called up and Ramirez gets bumped to Aviles’s role, it’s possible that Walters gets sent to AAA until a position player injury occurs, because I anticipate that Ramirez, Ryan Raburn and Roberto Perez probably make up the entirety of the bench. Eight-man pens: they’ll do special things to your roster.

Hattery: Worth nothing before I continue that John and I began this discussion three weeks before this response. His response was a week before mine for a number of reasons as we both are very busy people, and in general, chewing on any topic is worth doing.

Either way, time has brought with it more questions, and perhaps with it, more positivity surrounding what Jose Ramirez can be as a big league player. I will concede that the manner in which you have compared to Altuve to Ramirez leaves significant questions about whether Jose can establish himself offensively as a starter.

A few things that I find to be interesting with this comparison: Altuve clearly has an offensive edge both in terms of ISO, and quality of contact — the guy just rakes. Secondarily, though Ramirez is quite likely a 25-30 steal guy over the course of a full season, Altuve is clearly a better base runner. Of course, there are advantages for Ramirez, despite Altuve’s incredibly good 7.6% strikeout rate this season, developmentally Ramirez was  better at both putting the ball in play and drawing walks. How that translates to big league development is unclear.

Perhaps there is not the statistical foundation for what I suggest, but I would expect Jose Ramirez over a full season to have roughly a 6% plus walk rate and a strikeout rate around 11%. This with merely a flat-lined BABIP would be someone closer to a .310-.315 OBP. This combined with his base running value makes him an acceptable offensive player up the middle. Perhaps his wRC+ sits somewhere between 84-88 which on the surface is meager. However, as Eno Sarris points out in a delightful piece for Tribe fans, the wRC+ of MLB shortstops this season is 86.

Further, Ramirez’ defense has been elite, which combined with competent but not overwhelming offense is the making of a starting shortstop.

Can we believe in Jose’s defense? What do we know through 40 games at shortstop?

We know that Terry Francona has had very positive things to say about both his footwork and his overall range. So from a scouting and subjective experience, good review.

What do your eyes tell you? I can say that my useless and unperceptive eyes really like him defensively but this is in many ways skewed by the Asdrubal Cabrera experience. Being that Ramirez could be just average defensively and would look tangibly better.

What do the metrics tell us?

As for UZR it has Ramirez at 5.8, with a UZR/150 of 15 which is just incredible. Put in Indians context, in Omar Vizquel’s career, over 150 game seasons, he posted a UZR over 5 just three times. Does this mean anything other than we have a really small sample and Vizquel may have been absurdly overrated defensively because of his flashy nature? Probably not.

What about DRS? RDRS/YR (Defensive Runs Saved above average projected over a 1200 innings span) has Ramirez as 16 at shortstop and 33 at second base( Has played only 7 games there this season, though most scouts consider it to be his best position).

What does that 16 number mean? Is it good?

Yes. It is holy S*%t good. Let us compare.

  • Andrelton Simmons (historically great defender) RDRS/YR: 25
  • Elvis Andrus 2011: 7
  • Elvis Andrus 2012:7
  • Elvis Andrus 2013:10
  • J.J. Hardy 2012:15 Gold Glove Award
  • J.J. Hardy 2013:7 Gold Glove Award

In only 40 games, Jose’s defensive runs saved above average is 5.

Which would effectively put him as one of the top defensive shortstops in either league not named Andrelton.

Yes, defensive metrics are flawed and single season/half season samples can be very skewed but this guy is visibly a good defender and statistically looks very good/outstanding at shortstop.

This is a key as most thought he could only be a major league regular at second. Which brings us to failure rates and the inflated value of prospects. For this upcoming thought I expect to be sullied and stoned by the Cleveland populous, a thought that Grimm has so effectively planted in my brain.

Shortstop prospects fail a lot, while Lindor seems to have the makeup and profile to succeed as well as being absurdly gifted and wonderful to watch, have we overvalued him?

One of the recent trends is that prospects seem to have become more valued by general managers than young, solid controllable talent.

So while Ramirez’ name will be bandied about as possible trade bait, why not Lindor? Has he now become a mildly expendable, incredibly valuable chip that could bring back a dynamic big leaguer to play right, or another position of need?

Has his value so peaked as a prospect that we can reap an impactful return?

I don’t have answer yet so I will throw it back to you, John, for something that will be included in part two of our dialogue.
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