Cleveland Indians

Jose Ramirez Is Coming Alive

The ascension from afterthought to stardom was rapid. The Jose Ramirez rise is well documented, but now it is merely remembered as the rise that preceded the fall from grace. You might even remember when every Ramirez plate appearance was as though he wielded a flamethrower, spitting fire rockets down the first base line and into every crevasse offered by the opposing teams’ split du jour. The tune has changed since mid-August of 2018, leaving Indians fans’ to their futile attempts to discern just how Ramirez’s flamethrower morphed into a Zippo lighter.

The statistics are well represented across the Indians blogosphere, a swan song for the cataclysmic fall. Ramirez posted a 64 wRC+ after August 15 last season. Ramirez posted an inconceivable 0-fer in the 2018 ALDS against the Houston Astros. Ramirez posted a 49 wRC+ in the first month of 2019. The player who was just hasn’t been. At face value, it would be impossible to overstate the demise given the dreadfully awful statistical outputs.

As the calendar drifts passed the midway point of May, the season numbers continue to sag below league average. In the dark basements of the sabermetrically enthused and batting average lovers alike, a debate begs itself to the forefront of baseball discussion. Fantasy baseballers, fans, and MLB front office executives are presumably mired in the same spell — can the former MVP candidate figure it out or is he destined for a season of futility?

The question is a worthy one, of course. It requires an understanding of where he deviated from his MVP course. Moreover, it is predicated on identifying a simple disparity: When he was firing opposing pitchers’ offerings into alleys and over fences, what buoyed the dominance? In order to get there, though, it’s important to figure out what has lacked during his struggles.

The first thing that becomes increasingly obvious is that the struggles last year were far different than the ones he has encountered this year. To close out 2018, Ramirez was making soft contact and hitting way too many balls on the ground. To top it off, he simply stopped swinging at a ton of strikes. This was because pitchers had grown tired of getting crushed by him and started throwing fewer pitches in the zone.

Fast-forward to 2019. The issue is no longer rooted in soft contact and lack of aggression, but the inverse. He’s hitting the ball hard and too aggressive at times, perhaps desperate to will himself out of the extended funk. Assertions not withstanding, the contact and plate discipline profiles speak to two very different tales of struggle between last year and this year.

Zooming in on this year, our site has already proclaimed with great enthusiasm that Jose Ramirez needs to get back to pulling the baseball.

There it is, the Indians 2018 MVP candidate and 8 WAR third baseman was doing something wrong, pulling the ball. In the midst of Ramirez’ lackluster start there were a few discernible changes, one of them? The hitter who posted 38 home runs had stopped pulling the ball.
Below is Ramirez PULL%: by season and his ISO:
2015: 44.2% .121 ISO
2016: 39%. .150 ISO
2017: 46.3% .265 ISO
2018: 50% .289 ISO
2019: 36.5% .098 ISO

The noticeable correlation between Ramirez’s ISO and his pull percentage is jarring. In the two and a half weeks since the article was written, however, JRam has spiked his season pull percentage to 40.8% and the ISO to 0.117. Obviously, these are not yet in the same ballpark as his peak, but a demonstrable gravitation towards it. The trend reveals itself further when looking at the rolling averages of the selected criteria.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

The relationship between ISO numbers and pull percentage is immediately clearer, with the exception of the most recent few weeks. His pull percentage hasn’t produced the same ISO results as it had in the past, leaving him still mired in a slump by all numerical accounts. The why behind this factoid is even more interesting…

Of those with at least 100 plate appearances, Jose Ramirez has one of the five largest negative disparities between his weighted on base average (wOBA) and his expected weighted on base average (xwOBA). This means that the balls he has put in play have produced objectively unlucky results. His contact authority and launch angle have dictated that his actual results should be about 20% better.

While 20% is nothing to scoff at, it still doesn’t cover the gap between Ramirez’s historical production and current output. His 61 wRC+ is a monumental drop off from the player who posted two consecutive seasons of MVP-level 146 wRC+ marks.

The most concerning development has been his proclivity to chase pitches outside of the zone. As with other warts, this could be reasoned away with rationalizations about trying to hit his way out of the slump and his plate discipline suffering for it. Being the bat control wizard that he is, Ramirez’s extra swings outside of the zone have come at a great cost — less damaging contact outside of the bounds of the strike zone, producing contact that is inherently less damaging.

The chase rate is an obvious concern that hasn’t subsided. He’s still grasping at those out of the zone straws. It would be a more pressing concern, however, if other peripherals weren’t singing a different tune. A lot of notable metrics show encouraging developments, especially over the last few weeks.

  • Optimized Contact
Courtesy of FanGraphs

The most satisfying part of Jose Ramirez’s recent profile is optimizing contact. The relative aspect towards previous peak levels is important here. We know how dominant JRam was from the middle of 2017 to the middle of 2018. Using that as a frame of reference, we can see that recent trends reveal his pull frequency and hard contact percentage mirroring that period.

  • The Results and Luck Dynamic
Courtesy of FanGraphs

As with our previous pull percentage and hard contact plot, it is easy to pick out the period of struggle for Ramirez. When his intertwined wRC+ and BABIP dip, it is exceedingly obvious. Notice the recent uptick. While BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is not necessarily an indicator of success, recent developments further prove his contact authority gains. Hit the ball harder and more batted balls will find holes.

  • Hit Pitches In The Zone
Courtesy of FanGraphs

Ramirez’s greatest strength might just be his bat control, so rare at which he hits pitches in the strike zone is an important tell. Now, the caveat here is that zone contact fluctuates quite a bit, going through peaks and valleys throughout his campaigns. Again, the rolling average seems to show that he looks to be turning a corner in that department.

As the calendar flipped to May, Jose Ramirez began looking more and more like the Jose of old. He turned some of his soft contact into harder contact. He began pulling the ball more. He started making more contact in the zone.

Even Ramirez’s plate appearances have demonstrated the beginning of his resurgence. He’s repeatedly hugging the first base line and narrowly missing out on extra bases. He’s spoiling pitches around the fringes of the zone with two strikes. He just looks more comfortable from a purely subjective standpoint.

It doesn’t seem like a hot take to suggest that he will find himself again very soon, especially given the peripheral components of his plate displays. Betting on great players in their prime finding their way back to greatness after periods of ineffectiveness seems like a generally safe bet. Look beyond combining the end of last year’s slump with this year’s based on their demonstrably different natures. Indians fans need not fret, it is safe to expect more flamethrower than Zippo lighter from number 11 over the next 100-plus games. Home run pitches are in the near future.

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