Cleveland Indians

Mythbusting Jose Ramirez and his current “slump”

The demise of Jose Ramirez is greatly exaggerated. With the Indians offense mired in a 2019 slump that has them 29th out of 30 teams with regards to fWAR, the focus of some of that blame is on the shoulders of Ramirez, who has been one of the best offensive player in the game of baseball over the past three seasons. With fellow MVP candidate Francisco Lindor on the shelf since the start of the season, and with a group of offensively challenged and unknowns filling in holes after the 2018 season, Ramirez has been looked upon to carry the offensive weight in April.

It hasn’t gone well.

While we have to take a look at this year’s numbers, it’s important to notate a couple of things going forward. First off, Ramirez has played a grand total of 11 games in 2019, so we aren’t looking at a sizable sample size to really make any calls as to what’s going on with Ramirez going forward, which leads to my second point. There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt discussing the slump that Ramirez went through at the tail end of last year, and how it connects to this year. While there assuredly common threads between the two, it’s really hard for me, at this point, to call it a prolonged slump over the past two seasons. As I said before, this year is such a small sample size, and when you’re discussing the beginning of a season, and comparing it to the end of a season, there are so many differing factors involving the hitter.

So for today’s piece, I’m simply going to look at this year’s numbers. If the slump continues long into the 2019 season, I think combining all the numbers will be a worthwhile exercise. Until then, let’s take a look at what he’s doing so far in 2019.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 7.57.23 AM
Courtesy of Fangraphs

Just taking a cursory look at his traditional numbers thus far, a couple of things stand out. He’s still striking out at the same clip as last season, which fits in well with previous years. At the same time, Ramirez is walking a lot less. This would worry me if it weren’t so early in the season, but I’m not quite ready to jump off a sinking ship just yet. I’ll get into the lack of walks in a bit, but it’s just important to note for now. His BABIP is at an insanely low .171, which immediately gives you a likely indicator that he’s going to rebound a bit, and potentially a lot. Obviously, just looking at BABIP and proclaiming “he’s saved” is ridiculous, but again, it’s another indicator. The power is down, he only has six hits so far this year, four of which are singles, with the other two being doubles, so the ISO shouldn’t be a surprise in the least. Just keep in mind, looking at a small sample size leads to really bad predications. Obviously his ISO, OBP, and wOBA are going to be bad, because he isn’t hitting for power, or getting on base a lot. But it’s only 11 games.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Looking at JRam’s batted ball profile is pretty interesting, especially when comparing it to his norms. Again, note the small sample size, but it does give us an early trend into what Ramirez has been doing at the plate. First off, he’s hitting more fly balls than ever before, while slightly dropping in ground ball and line drive percentage. I don’t put a lot of stock in that, simply because many of his fly balls have been of the weak variety.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

You can see that while Ramirez is still registering the same amount of hard hit baseballs (his hard% is up a percent from 2018), but his soft% is up over 13%. He’s just hitting a whole bunch of weak stuff to go along with a “normal” amount of hard hit baseballs. To look at it a bit deeper, here are his exit velocity numbers.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

JRam’s average exit velocity is identical to his 2018 numbers, so there’s some “right” to his swing, and while this is really over-generalizing, it’s easy to think that there’s something else going on. Is Ramirez working on something? Is he trying to take on too much of the offense and pressing? Are pitchers doing something different?

If you go back and take a look at JRam’s batted ball profile, you probably noted the one massive difference in what’s happening in 2019, as compared to year’s past. This season, Ramirez is only pulling 20% of the balls pitched to him, as opposed to 50% in the past. He’s hitting the ball to the opposite field 11 1/2% more than in 2018, and he’s hitting the ball up the middle 18 1/2% more as well.

It’s clear that Ramirez has seen an increase in power with his growth as a pull hitter. It’s also clear that teams have begun to shift on Ramirez to work against his pull hitting antics, and this could be the connective tissue to the 2018 season. Last year, the Twins utilized an interesting shift against Ramirez at the end of August.

This is a shift that has continued this year, as noted by the Beacon Journal beat writer Ryan Lewis.

Ramirez has faced some of the more severe shifts, at times, the past year or two. The Minnesota Twins had a four-outfield configuration that also included the second baseman in shallow right field and another with his heels on the grass near second base. Against a shift like that, he’s twice tried to bunt down the third-base line with nobody there to field it. It hasn’t yet worked, mostly because Ramirez hasn’t sent it far enough down the line. But if he does, the idea is that it might result in an extra-base hit.

via Ryan Lewis, Beacon Journal/Ohio.com

Prior to that, letsgotribe‘s Matt Lyons noted that Ramirez was trying to beat the shift like a man possessed. Please give it a read…it’s worth your while.

It’s important to take all of this in as a whole, because what we’re seeing is Ramirez making an attempt at beating the shift by both bunting, and hitting the opposite way. Some may talk about Ramirez rolling out some of that “JRamSwag,” but I truly believe that talking about Ramirez and his attitude is a knock on Ramirez, the high IQ hitter savant that he truly is.

Another question to ponder is whether or not pitchers are coming at him differently. Ramirez is a notorious fastball killer, so are pitchers working more benders to keep him off balance?

Courtesy of Fangraphs

You can see that the general usage to Ramirez is the same for the most part, with the exception of the slider percentage taking a huge 5% jump. Pitchers are definitively throwing slightly different than last year, but while the slider jump is fairly significant, I’m not sure it’s enough to cause this type of slump. It won’t hurt it, but Ramirez is still seeing enough fastballs to be an effective, top-of-the-league bat.

Is he pressing?

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Ramirez is clearly swinging more, and missing more when he does. If you look deeper, he’s swinging outside the zone far more than he did last year, and he’s making contact with far less. He’s also swinging a lot more in the zone, and making slightly less contact. If you swing more, and make less contact, it could be because he’s pressing to carry the offense, or pressing to make his swing change impactful, or it could be that he’s just swinging and missing more at sliders. In the end, his percentages aren’t as good as last year, but still solid major league numbers. It shouldn’t be indicative of a precipitous drop.

My best guess is that the majority of why Ramirez is currently struggling is that he’s trying to figure out a workable way to beat the shift, and while it’s probably not optimal to do this during the regular season, it’s clearly something that he’s been working on for a bit longer than the past two weeks, including spring training.

What I’ve learned about Jose Ramirez over the years, since I began covering him in 2011, is that he’s excessively good at hitting the baseball. He always has been, and he always will be. He’s had dips here and there throughout his career, both in the minors and the majors, but this slump fits with an alteration to improve his swing in the grand scheme, combined with a slight pitching change from opposing pitchers. If it were just one or the other, I’m not sure we’d be seeing this big of a dip, but we’re seeing a conglomeration of changes, both from the player, and the opponents. A dip is not only likely, but justified.

It just won’t be forever.

It’s clear he’s trying to get the ball to the opposite field, perhaps with the grand scheme of forcing teams to not shift against him. Maybe it works, and maybe it doesn’t, but either way, I don’t think it’s going to be the book-end to his entire career.

So often, lost in the shuffle of JRam’s greatness, is how smart of a baseball player he is. Francisco Lindor is lauded for the work that he puts into his swing, and it’s easy to look at the affable Jose Ramirez and just talk about his swagger and moxie, and how stubborn he is. In reality, Ramirez works on his swing at an elite level. If you talk to anyone in the system, especially Ty Van Burkleo, they’ll tell you the same thing. I saw it in the minors, and we see it again in the majors. Ramirez is a worker, and this is exactly what we’re in the middle of right now.

I’ve been asked numerous times over the past few days, “how worried are you about Jose Ramirez?”

The answer?

Not in the least. Come talk to me in July. Jose Ramirez will figure this out, and it’s far too early to get worried about it.

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