Welcome to the WFNY 2019 Cleveland Indians preview series. Since we are an unconventional group, we are here to give you an unconventional preview. Some might be breakdowns of positions. Some might be position group battles. Some might be in depth character studies of the intricacies of the art of bunting…just kidding we hate bunts and you should too. We will be here every day for the next two weeks leading up to Opening Day, looking at some of the players and positions of this world-class Indians team.
Links to previous previews: Welcome home Carlos – Everyone should be rooting for Leonys Martin – Will Jake Bauers make us forget Yandy Diaz? – Who’s replacing Yan Gomes? – Too many outfielders? – Ten questions that need answered – Who’s in the bullpen?
The astronomical ascent of Jose Ramirez from a chubby-cheeked, under-the-radar utility infielder to a chubby-cheeked superstar has undoubtedly been one of the most enjoyable parts of being an Indians fan over the last five years.
Since getting the call as a 20-year-old in 2013, Ramirez has gotten better in just about every season of his big league career, save for a down year in 2015. But, even that doesn’t do justice to the trajectory he’s been on over the past three seasons, a time frame in which the franchise has netted three division titles and averaged over 95 wins per year.
Ramirez accumulated a combined 1.7 fWAR in parts of three seasons from 2013-2015 but didn’t record more than 100 games played in either of the seasons. Given the role of a full-time starter in 2016, that fWAR number jumped to 4.7. Then to 6.5 in 2017. Then to 8.0 in 2018.
An fWAR spike that drastic requires across-the-board improvement, not just unlocking a power stroke (which he has done, of course).
Take his walk rate, for example. Drawing free passes was something he had been mediocre at for the nearly all of his career, even dating back to the minors. Then, in 2018, he became elite, seemingly out of nowhere.
His career-high walk rate in 2018 ranked seventh in the MLB among qualified hitters, a true milestone for someone who recorded a paltry 4.9% mark just a few seasons prior.
Much like his superstar counterpart Francisco Lindor, Ramirez has tapped into a wealth of power that nobody — maybe even himself — knew he had.
Throughout his minor league career, he was known as a solid contact hitter, but never a power hitter. From 2011-2015, the Dominican Republic native never hit more than seven home runs in a season. Even in 2016, considered his breakout year, his home run total topped out at 11.
One of the biggest keys to his power surge? You might have guessed it: a spike in fly ball rate.
Of course, more frequent fly balls isn’t the only factor. His hard-hit rate has ascended from 24 percent in 2015 to a career-high of 36.1 percent in 2018 (via Fangraphs), suggesting that he has simply become an all-around stronger hitter with better timing.
Heck, he even became one of the best baserunners in the league, and it happened overnight.
According to Fangraphs’ baserunning measurement (BsR), Ramirez went from a mark of exactly zero BsR in 2017, a perfectly average score, to 12 BsR in 2018, which led the league by a wide margin — Brett Gardner was the next closest with 8.9 BsR.
But, that’s enough about the past. What can we expect from Ramirez in 2019? After all, an offense that relied on him heavily in 2018 will probably have to rely on him even more in 2019. Departures of Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion, along with three consecutive seasons of fantastic individual play have pushed the expectations for Ramirez to heights that he hasn’t seen before.
There’s not much reason to think that Ramirez won’t be a standout hitter once again in 2019. His walk rate could surely come back down to earth a bit after last year’s steep jump, and he might not slug 39 home runs again. But, we know that he can boost his .270 batting average from last season, a mark that was largely tanked by a cold stretch in August and September.
Essentially, if Ramirez stays healthy, we can expect elite offensive production out of him once again. Yet, that’s where recent developments have made us the least bit uneasy.
This is not a good sign for the Indians. Jose Ramirez is being helped up off the ground and a cart is taking him off the field.
— Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02) March 24, 2019
Upon receiving the Bleacher Report mobile alert reading “Jose Ramirez Carted Off Field”, I, for one, began raising the white flag on the spot.
Since the injury, however, reports have taken quite a bit of anxiety out of the situation. What once seemed like a potential season-ending injury has been scaled back significantly.
Nothing definitive yet regarding Opening Day, but the report from Terry Francona is that Jose Ramirez is feeling better today. Said that since Ramirez is on the field today, that might be a pretty good indicator [to his status on Thursday]. But, still day-to-day.
— Ryan Lewis (@ByRyanLewis) March 25, 2019
Still, the reaction to Sunday’s incident should demonstrate just how essential Ramirez is to this team. I’m not breaking any news here when I say that an 8-WAR player is important to his franchise, but when there are only three hitters on the roster — Ramirez, Lindor, and Carlos Santana — that you can absolutely bank on for above-average production at the plate this season, that statement carries a bit more weight.
Should Ramirez not be ready for Opening Day on Thursday, it’ll likely be either Max Moroff or Eric Stamets manning the hot corner. The 25-year-old Moroff has a versatile glove that can move around the infield but has yet to do much at the plate in the majors (.193/.293/.331 in 209 MLB plate appearances) despite an attractive walk rate of 11 percent. At 27 years old, Stamets will be ecstatic to make his MLB debut this year, but likely won’t be up for very long. The light-hitting infielder has seen just about all of his professional playing time at shortstop and projects to be the first man off the island when either Ramirez, Lindor or Jason Kipnis return from injuries. If all goes well, Moroff and Stamets won’t be around much this season (don’t take it personally, guys).
The final hurdle for Ramirez will be the one that matters most: postseason success. It’s been beaten into you by now I’m sure — either by local sports talk radio hosts or frustrated Twitter users — but Ramirez has generally been a non-factor in October the past three years, save for the 2016 World Series.
In the eternal battle between elite talents and the postseason’s small sample sizes, he has come up on the short end, posting a slash line of .195/.247/.253 with one home run, two doubles and four RBI in 93 postseason plate appearances. If anything he’s trending the wrong way, too. He’s 2-for-31 with three walks and 10 strikeouts in his final two playoff series.
There’s not much else to be said other than he has to be much, much better in the postseason if the Indians, who are already paper-thin in terms of run producers, hope to have any success in October.
All signs point towards Ramirez getting another opportunity to reverse the narrative about his postseason performance. But, for now, here’s to good health and six months of ‘Jose’ chants.