Jose Ramirez, WAR and Versatility

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

As WFNY’s resident Jose Ramirez historian and theorist, his skilled versatility became a striking concept upon the return of one Jason Kipnis. Versatility and skilled versatility are different concepts and ultimately important to where Major League Baseball is going. Michael Martinez is versatile insofar as he owns an outfield glove, infield glove, and simply does what he’s told. Mike Aviles was similarly flexible. Yet, more than authoring digs at AAAA players, the purpose of this analysis is to propose that perhaps catchall value estimators like WAR actually undervalue someone with Jose Ramirez overarching competency in terms of the roster optimization it provides.

The most excitement regarding Ramirez at this moment stems from offensive strides he has made, and in many ways this should be the focal point. In the early season sample he has hit nearly twice as many fly balls as ground balls after being a ground ball hitter to this point in his career. Further, his already phenomenal ability to avoid soft contact has improved. He even has diminished an already elite chase rate which is leading to more walks. Ramirez early 2017 has affirmed that 2016 was only his breakout season not an outlier but an indicator of what more was to come. However, delving into the offensive numbers is a part of this analysis but also a distraction. Ramirez excellent offensive production plays up the value of his versatility.

Yet more impressive is Ramirez capacity to play an above-average to elite second base and an average to above average third base. Metrics like DRS/UZR have him solidly above average at both positions but they are ultimately pretty finicky, so incorporating additional information is an important step. Ramirez was graded as elite defensively at second base, which considering he once held his own at shortstop at the big league level is makes sense. Further, watching Ramirez at second base versus Kipnis, an average defender, makes visible a chasm of defensive quality. Ramirez’s arm, transfer and range are all significantly better when watching the two.

The visual depictions which are included highlight Ramirez exceptional skills defensively.

At third base:

At second base:

For a moment, preliminary thoughts on WAR (Wins Above Replacement). First, it is just an estimator; it does not perfectly capture value and there are some rare skills which it struggles to capture be it Brandon Guyer’s HBP “skill” or older fWAR calculations that did not incorporate contact management for a pitcher. Further, it is not an end all be all for valuing players as it should be taken with context and considered to have significant error bars. With these caveats, it is a useful estimator and is a really useful tool to more effectively compare players and estimate contract values.

Ramirez is coming of a 4.8 WAR season on Fangraphs and currently is second on the Indians with .8 WAR this season, good for 25th among all position players in Major League Baseball. Projections have him resting between 4 and 5 WAR once again.

For context:

  • 0-1 WAR is a replacement level player to bench player
  • 1-2 WAR is a second division start
  • 2-3 WAR is a first division starter
  • 3-4 WAR is an above average starter
  • 4-5 WAR is All-Star level
  • 5-7 WAR is an MVP candidate

Ramirez once again sits poised to post an All-Star-caliber season at age 24 while potentially riding a power spike to a top-10 MVP-vote-type year. To suggest that Jose Ramirez may be undervalued by this metric is somewhat irrational but that is why I am here.

Time for a simple comparison to open the discussion. In 2016, Ramirez and Kipnis both posted 4.8 WAR seasons. Kipnis at his primary position and Ramirez at his second- and fourth-best positions third base and left field, respectively. Ramirez matched Kipnis playing his non-primary position which therein allowed Kipnis to play his primary position at which Ramirez is better.

In this sense, Ramirez is inherently more valuable because he not only provided significant value but also did so in a manner which did not reduce the value of another of the Indians key performers. In Ramirez, Francona can constantly manipulate the lineup and position construction to cover for injuries by having him cover the position due for the largest marginal value decline. For instance the beginning of 2017, the Indians best option at third Yandy Diaz was better than their best option at second—Martinez or Erik Gonzalez. Ramirez’s productive versatility added overall value by allowing the Indians to pick the smaller marginal decrease to the overall team value by using Diaz at third base. Of course, the sample was small so the gains were not dynamic but similar action improved the 2016 Indians with Ramirez taking time in left field and then third base following the release of Juan Uribe.

This flexibility impacts acquisition costs as the Indians are then positioned to upgrade any position with the lowest cost and shift Ramirez to a position with higher one. Take Guyer and Coco Crisp, for example. These two were acquired for essentially no asset value, and then Ramirez deployed at third where acquiring an upgrade was far more expensive. In this sense, Ramirez value is not only in accruing production at the position he is currently assigned but also by allowing the Indians the best possible deployment at other positions which improves the teams overall WAR production. In this sense, Ramirez is more valuable than his WAR total would dictate.