On Wednesday evening I was at the Astros-Indians game, seated on the first base side, and I was compelled to look at what was right in front of me: Jose Ramirez standing but a few yards from Francisco Lindor. While reveling in what has been an inordinately fun and successful team, I could not help myself but to think about the future. Lindor and Ramirez are both under team control through at least 2020.1
But of course, I am getting ahead of myself. While we are buying into 2016 Jose Ramirez, what does his future hold?
A wise retort would be “You are writing for WFNY not working in a front office, how can you expect to know what the future holds?” Fair. Baseball’s most central beauty is its unpredictability. Indeed, Dave Cameron at Fangraphs/FOX Sports has written a phenomenal piece about our inability to project which veterans will continue to produce. All of this conceded, Jose Ramirez has a very bright future as the Indians long term third Baseman.
First, as everyone here knows, third base has been a black hole since Casey Blake was shipped out for enigmatic bopper, Carlos Santana. We have watched as baseball yeoman like Jack Hannahan and Mark Reynolds have attempted to fill the void. Last season, using WAR—an imperfect stat that attempts to create a comprehensive value estimate—the Indians had bottom five production from the hot corner. While we were smitten with Giovanny Urshela (and now Yandy Diaz), our third baseman of the future was right in front of us the entire time.
Here is where I get to the evidence. When we look at position players we essentially look at two buckets, offense and defense. Let’s handle defense first. Ramirez is an average to slightly above average defender. We can infer this from many different avenues. First, people who have had significant time at shortstop often make the transition easily. Second, using his career at third, Ramirez grades positively in UZR and DRS, two defensive metrics. This is the part of the conversation where you roll your eyes and say “defensive metrics are wildly flawed!”. I agree. Evaluating defense in general is brutal and nothing more than an organized mess. I will say that visually he looks solid but not overwhelming. So I think we can all agree he is somewhere near average. Further, I would love to hear readers’ input on how you think he looks defensively at third.
Time to talk about the offense. We are seeing career highs in average, ISO, OBP and SLG. Ramirez is approaching a 10+ HR, 20+ SB, and 40+ 2B season. The last Indian to do so? Michael Brantley in 2014. This is where we have to begin to talk about whether this is an outlier, the new reality, or neither.
The first question is, does this development makes sense on the aging curve? The answer is yes, it absolutely does. Even as players are posting peak seasons at younger and younger ages, we still see peak offensive production generally from 23-26.2
(Courtesy of Fangraphs).
Obviously, aging curves are not binding authority but often we forget how young a player is and the reality of development. Ramirez is only 23 years old and I believe his early call-ups in 2013 and 2014 deceived us into growing frustrated in 2015 with a very young and promising player.
There are two obvious leaps in his offensive tools in 2016, power (ISO) and hit tool (batting average). Yet, as always they are intertwined as Ramirez home run per fly ball has not really increased but his doubles frequency has. This is likely due to the highest line drive rate of his career. When I look purely at the hit tool, I look at two things: contact rate (strikeout percentage/K%) and contact quality (BABIP/HardHit…).
Ramirez has a career K% of 11.5%. To put that in context, the league average K% in 2016 is 21%. This is a monumental gap, and one of the reasons Ramirez is such an asset with runners on base (which I will get to that later). Bottom line, Ramirez is elite at putting the ball in play.
Time for contact quality/contact outcomes. This means we have to talk about BABIP, I’m sorry if this is technical but hang in there—I am going somewhere. What are we trying to measure with BABIP? Just what happens when the ball is hit into the field of play. Currently Ramirez is running the highest BABIP of his big league career, and significantly above average. Cue everyone yelling “regression!” Hold your helmets.
There are a couple of skills that can elevate BABIP. Speed, contact authority, contact dispersion. Is Jose fast? Twenty steals and forty helmet-free slides later helps us say yes.
Does Jose have contact authority? He has the 33rd lowest SOFT% among qualified players, meaning he has a lot of medium to hard contact.
Does Jose use the whole field? Increasingly, yes. Ramirez is very close to neutral in pull-cent-opp, which can be seen visually.
While not perfectly even, we can see that Jose Ramirez has fantastic distribution to all fields. So why does that matter? It is called the Carlos Santana problem. Santana makes boatloads of really hard contact but has really low BABIP’s, why? He is so pull dominant. Watching Santana drill balls into the shift makes fans want to scream. Distribution makes it challenging for opposing teams to position themselves defensively and allows for more hits to fall.
So in speed, contact quality and contact distribution, Ramirez grades out as above average. I am not arguing that Jose will always put balls in play this way as there is a lot of variance in baseball, but he has the tools to sustain an above average BABIP, and in turn, an above average batting average.
Jose Ramirez is clutch.
I put that in bold because it is in some ways a hot take. There is a never ending argument between analytics folks and old school folks as to the existence of clutch. Well, I am going to argue, that Ramirez tool set is one which lends itself to being clutch.
In 2015, with no runners on base, MLB players posted a BABIP of .294. With runners on, .306. Most players BABIP’s will improve .05-.10 with runners on base. This is due to an unknown mixture of decreased command from the stretch and different positioning for the sake of holding runners among other variables.
Second, Ramirez makes more contact than all but eight (EIGHT!) hitters in baseball. Essentially, Ramirez can put the ball in play more than almost anyone, and do so with solid, contact quality. Ramirez is in this way, kind of a dream hitter with runners in scoring position.
All of this to say, Ramirez’ skills create a tremendous floor of solid defense with good discipline and an elite ability to put the ball in play. 2016 may be his best season, but Ramirez is destined to be a long term starter at third base and an integral part of the future.
All referenced statistics are through September 9, 2016