I’m heavily invested in Jose Ramirez. More than just having him be my favorite player on my favorite team,1 I bought into Ramirez being 2018 Jose heavily in fantasy baseball. The anchor of my AL-only roster, my big points league team,2, as well as a dynasty team that has made the finals two years in a row and a league in which I turned down a trade last year of Corey Kluber and Adalberto Mondesi for Ramirez alone, a trade that would have propelled me to the championship and set me up for this season better than the banjo-hitting Ramirez has thus far.
So being the concerned fan I am, armed with the ability to watch numerous 1:10pm start times from my desk this season, I’ve watched *a lot* of Ramirez and he looks to be almost completely different from the iterations we have seen previous yet not so much that there is cause for panic. So let’s spend today’s WWW looking into what could be causing some of the issues for Ramirez’s slow start to 2019.
Walk like a man
One of the best things about Ramirez in 2017/2018 was his ability to take a walk. That skill, that batting eye is what propelled the bowling ball sized third-baseman into the stratosphere, the upper echelon of talent and made him into an MVP candidate. Coupling an elite walk rate with a lower than average strikeout rate creates this mythical beast of a player not making unproductive outs. That walk rate spiked from 8.1 in 2017 to 15.2 in 2018 while the K rate kept with career averages, right around 11.5. That high level of walks, the rate almost doubled from the year before and six percent better than his career average, was unsustainable but understandable in the moment because Ramirez spent much of 2018 hitting behind Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and in front of Edwin Encarnacion. Opposing pitchers were not wanting to risk giving up the ghost to Ramirez and were well within reason to make sure they didn’t give him anything he could square up. Ramirez was able to lay off of most of those out of the zone pitches and wait on something he could hammer, which he did regularly with his 39 home runs and 38 doubles.
Plate discipline doesn’t mean finishing your meals
This season the script is flipped in terms of plate discipline. Ramirez is walking at a pedestrian 4.8%, a precipitous drop from last year and well below his career average. Ramirez has turned those walks into outs, but luckily not strikeouts, as his K rate is almost the same as last year, 11.8. Looking into plate discipline statistics, you can start to see some of the picture come into focus: Ramirez’s Swing% is up from last years, now 44.3% from last years 38.5%, coupled with an O-Contact%3 drop of almost nine percentage points. Jose has also seen his swinging strike rate “balloon” from 4.7% in 2018 to 7.0% in 2019.
Now if you’re asking yourself, “hey self, Gerbs just gave us a bunch of numbers and percentages and I don’t know what that even means”, I’ll explain! It means that Ramirez is swinging more often at pitches than last year, being less selective, and making less contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. Now some of those pitches he is missing on out of the zone could be foul balls and they could be hits but for sure he is just plain whiffing on more pitches outside of the zone than normal, a big drop from last years plate discipline model. Those swing and misses have not hurt his strikeout rate which is great, but in getting to two strikes sooner, Ramirez has had to swing at worse pitches than in years past.
I get by with a little help from my friends
It’s of no surprise that pitchers feel they can attack Ramirez more often this year as opposed to last year. Lineup construction is a topic that can cause arguments that last for days, but looking at this Indians lineup compared to years before, you get an idea as to why. Ramirez has moved up to the second spot in the lineup most days, but instead of being surrounded by All-Stars, his “lineup protection” is a collection of stiffs comparatively.4 Leonys Martin, Jake Bauers, something called a Jordan Luplow and Tyler Naquin5 have been the would-be batters tasked with hitting around the mercurial Ramirez, and the results have not been great. The leadoff spot for the Tribe is slashing .158/.273.316 and the third spot in the lineup is slashing a little better .189/268/.324. To say the surrounding hitters are to blame is too much, but it’s not nothing considering how much Ramirez has struggled.
Pull don’t push
Examining the batted ball data of 2019 for Ramirez you also start to see some issues as well. The type of batted ball—line drive, fly ball, grounder—are all in line from last year6 but where those balls are going and how quickly they are getting there is drastically different. Early season small samples baked in, Ramirez is not pulling the ball at all so far in 2019 and is choosing to go to either center or the opposite field the vast majority of the time. 2018’s 50% pull percentage is gone in 2019, now only 20% of the time is Ramirez attempting to pepper the walls. When looking at how hard Ramirez has been hitting the ball, that makes sense: a 13.1% increase in soft contact would give credence to the idea when you think about opposite field pokes are usually not the barreled type of batted ball.
Combine all of these elements together, and you start to see why the early stages of 2019 have been an issue for Ramirez. Most of these issues are correctable, as Ramirez needs to get back to being super selective at the plate and not offering at out-of-the-zone offerings from opposing pitchers and have a plan to pull the ball to maximize contact. There is the element of taking what the pitcher will give you, but as his pitch selection is lessened, it’s harder to wait on that perfect pitch to let go and turn on. Adding major league bats like Lindor’s and Jason Kipnis to the lineup will also take some of the pressure off of Ramirez to be one of the only sources of offense outside of Santana. You also have to consider that a week before the season started, Ramirez went down in a heap from a foul ball off his knee. I’m not claiming his is injured still and therefore a cause for his struggles, but missing time at all in prep for the season can be a hindrance going forward. Let’s just hope that Ramirez, with the help of solid coaching and a return to health of some fellow teammates, can shake off these early season blues and come back to 2018 level production. My fantasy team needs it.