In baseball, when one thinks of Cleveland, he or she probably thinks of Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Corey Kluber. I imagine that outside of die-hard fans, bringing up José Ramírez would probably result in a quizzical look. Even with the team’s tremendous playoff run, the best response one would probably get from non-Cleveland fans is that he got two hits in Game 7 of the World Series. It is entirely possible that he is best known for his hair.
Ramírez’s 4.8 fWAR ranked in the top 30 in baseball this past season, and it nearly doubled his career total. Before 2016, his career numbers were .239/.298/.346, which equated out to a poor 78 wRC+. His defense and baserunning were keeping him on the field. Last year, with Lindor’s call up, Ramírez lost more value because he had to move off of shortstop as a result of Lindor’s glove being inarguably better. Moving to third base full time meant that he really needed to start hitting. And hit he did.
In 2016, Ramírez hit .312/.363/.462, for a 122 wRC+. His baserunning was better than ever, too. That, combined with his propensity to stay out of double plays, added up to an 8.8 BsR. Only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts added more runs on the basepaths. It is important to note that the defensive metrics tell significantly different stories on his defense. He had a -1 DRS, 0.7 UZR, and -3.7 FRAA. The FanGraphs version of WAR uses UZR, so that is why it looks at him most favorably. Baseball Prospectus uses FRAA, and as a result has him at only 2.9 WARP. Scouts say that he is a good fielder, so I am leaning towards his fWAR being closer to his “true” 2016 WAR.
I wish I could explain exactly how Ramírez achieved such a drastic improvement in 2016. The fact of the matter is that there is not much to go on. His HR/FB ratio was only slightly higher than his career rate. His .333 BABIP is a bit high, but not so much so given his speed. Looking at his batted ball distributions, the biggest change is his GB/FB ratio. This might be why his hard-hit rate was up and his soft-hit rate was significantly down. He favored hitting the ball in the air over the ground more than he ever did. He also appeared to stop bunting. For the vast majority of players, this is the best thing to do. However, there are exceptions. Speedy, small, no-power players such as Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon are best served by keeping the ball on the ground and bunting for hits. A year ago, I would’ve argued that Ramírez fits that mold. So far, it looks like I am wrong.
One of Ramírez’s greatest strengths is his contact rate, which improved even further in 2016. He only struck out ten percent of the time. That is less than half the league average. Only four players struck out less on a rate basis, and two of them were below-average hitters.
A player who improved his wOBA by over 70 points should be primed for regression. As much as I wish I could point to specific changes that Ramírez made, I still think the indications are that something real happened. The biggest area of regression is likely his power. He hit 11 HR and 46 doubles, both of which were greater than his career totals heading into 2016. I’m guessing that if a scout were asked about his power, he would probably grade it out as a 40. Players who are 5’ 9’’, 180 lbs. generally do not hit for much power. Guys like José Altuve are the exception, not the norm.
Steamer is a believer too. It projects only a 24 point drop in wOBA in 2017, and for him to be worth 3.3 WAR. That is a lot better than what Lonnie Chisenhall was giving the team in prior years. John Sickels, a prospect evaluator at Minor League Ball, was always high on Ramírez, and he also believes in the improvements he made in 2016.
I don’t mean to imply that Ramírez came out of nowhere. It is not like he was drafted in the 30th round to be an organizational player and then obliterated everyone’s expectations. He was not on any Top 100 prospect list that I could find, though ESPN’s Keith Law said he “just missed” making his list in 2013. Baseball Prospectus had Ramírez as the sixth-best prospect in the Cleveland system that year. In other words, though he has never been rated very highly, he had always been on the radar of anybody who follows prospects closely.
That BP scouting report was more or less the consensus on Ramírez, and they were right about him in his first couple of years. But through what looks like the sum of several small improvements, he has tapped into power that nobody knew was there.
Ramírez was always known to have great makeup, and those are the types of players that are most likely to surprise you. Paul Goldschmidt is an extreme example of this. Some regression is likely coming, but I believe that he has legitimately turned himself into a better baseball player. Cleveland had struggled to fill its hole at third base for years, and now it looks like they have a good solution who is under team control through 2020.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.