There is a human tendency to ignore what is unspoken, to fail to appreciate what is not easily elucidated from a conversation with the press. Without any public storytelling or Trevor Bauer-like conversations with detailed discussion of process, the fundamental brilliance of Jose Ramirez goes unnoticed. Ramirez has worked hard to communicate while ascending through the Indians system at a very young age but his charisma lies in his panache, his joy, and particularly impressive Mario Kart skills. These traits are endearing but subversive to the appreciation of Ramirez brilliance in the batter’s box.
Ramirez is posting what is perhaps the best season ever by a third baseman and his blend of hitting, base running, and defense is splendid. Yet, Ramirez consistent offensive improvement over the past three years is scintillating.
As Ramirez has turned himself into one of the five best offensive players in baseball two key categories have shown near exponential growth.
It turns out reaching the big leagues at 20 years old with elite contact skills gives room for development. Moving forward walks and power are an interconnected concept for a couple of reasons. Being selective being central to power production and power production begetting an elevated walk rate. Travis Sawchik discussed this development for Ramirez and Francisco Lindor at FiveThirtyEight.
First, Ramirez has partially shown elevated power because he has narrowed the area in the strike zone where he swings in order to leverage up his swing for contact authority.
Ramirez has tightened his zone of attack to the middle of the plate against right-handed pitchers, specifically middle-in when he swings the bat. By narrowing the zone and essentially picking a tunnel of pitches to attack, Ramirez can dominate that tunnel, and in 2018, pull the ball in the air. Picking a slot in the strike zone to target to drive the ball with authority when up in the count is an outstanding decision and having the discipline, tools to execute that strategy is what separates Ramirez from the rest of baseball.
Yet, when you start capitalizing on a target zone in the strike zone; opposing pitchers and catchers will develop a counter, an effort to put the hitter in a different disadvantage. In big league baseball, one of the biggest signs of respect and a reflection of production is when teams shift heavily to a breaking ball or offspeed heavy approach.
Ramirez has seen a major increase in slider, curveball, and changeup usage as well as a corresponding decline in fastball usage. This usage alteration forces Ramirez to be far more discerning than earlier in his career in order to take advantage of rare fastballs in his selected slot. Increasing the difficulty and relating to the type of pitch usage, Ramirez is simply seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone as pitches in the strike zone are frequently punished.
But, somehow, with fewer pitches in the zone and an increasing number of breaking balls and offspeed pitches, Ramirez is swinging at a lower rate of pitches outside the strike zone by a significant margin. It is easy to highlight that Ramirez has made an essential profile-breaking adjustment, nearly doubling his walk rate and vaulting him to the top five of the walk rate leaderboard but the inputs determining this improvement are more intricate.
Like Ramirez’ slotting approach to the strike zone where he appears to look for a tight tunnel of offerings, Ramirez appears to have blocked out different sectors or heights of offerings to eliminate chasing low value breaking balls.
The above GIF demonstrates how Ramirez has winnowed his sector of swings against breaking balls and off-speed pitches against right-handed pitching. Essentially, Ramirez has targeted a certain height against soft stuff with the endpoint being the bottom two-thirds of the strike zone. Radically decreasing swings above and below the strike zone as well as off the outer third.
Ramirez is a savant, a hitter with once in a generation contact skills who has developed a highly refined and tactically complex approach to commanding the strike zone. Ramirez has essentially inverted the pitcher-hitter interaction by forcing pitchers into certain areas. By limiting the chase frequency on breaking balls to the bottom two thirds, Ramirez forces pitchers to either throw a pitch in the bottom two-thirds of the strike zone or face a disadvantageous count. Once the pitcher is in a disadvantageous count, Ramirez has a tight tunnel middle to middle-in where he locks in to lever up his power and take advantage of his lightning-quick wrists and strong hands to elevate the baseball with authority.
Ramirez has elite physical skills with eye-hand coordination and weight transfer as well as wrist strength anchoring a plus-plus hit tool. However, beyond the athleticism, Ramirez is an offensive savant. A chess master in the batter’s box who, uncommon for a hitter, takes command of the plate appearance and forces pitchers into a pattern which favors his strengths. Ramirez does not speak of his process, cite Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus, use engineering terms that journalists have to spellcheck but that does not mean he is not an offensive Svengali.
Jose Ramirez is having a monster season and at the heart is a savant-like approach to hitting.