Referring to a Major League Baseball professional as a utility player brings with it certain connotations. It is assumed that he won’t excel in any one area but will be competent in all facets of the game. The term grit will probably be thrown around a little bit. Versatility, not exceptional skills, is what makes the utility player valuable.
This season, Jose Ramirez has played second base, third base, shortstop, and left field for the Indians while hitting in every single spot in the batting order. So while it’s true that he is technically a utility player, he has become much more than that.
The biggest reason the Indians have survived without Michael Brantley is because Jose Ramirez has literally been Michael Brantley— August Fagerstrom (@AugustFG_) August 20, 2016
In 2015 Ramirez posted a triple slash line of .219/.291/.340 with a wRC+ of 75 in 355 plate appearances. Despite this dismal offensive performance he earned 0.8 fWAR for playing solid defense all around the diamond. Classic unremarkable utility player, right? Right.
Well, something has changed in 2016. Through 455 plate appearances Ramirez has posted a triple slash of .311/.366/.455 with a 121 wRC+. That’s been good for 3.2 fWAR. Quite the dramatic shift in offensive production. Growth like this isn't wholly unexpected given that Ramirez is only 23 years old, but it is a phenomenal turnaround that’s worth examining.
First let’s investigate his plate discipline based on data collected by PITCHf/x.
|Season||BB%||K%||O-Swing% (pfx)||Z-Swing% (pfx)||Swing% (pfx)||O-Contact% (pfx)||Z-Contact% (pfx)||Contact% (pfx)|
One of the startling things about Ramirez is that his plate discipline numbers remain largely unchanged from a year ago. His strikeout rate is basically the same. His walk and contact rates are down a percentage point or two from 2015 even though you would assume both had risen.
The most noticeable difference is that Ramirez is swinging more overall, with almost all of those swings coming in the zone. His swing rate outside of the zone remains mostly unchanged, but when he does swing at those pitches he is making less contact. He’s being more aggressive, but that aggression is targeted at the optimal pitches to hit. Take a look at a heat map of his swings, all of the increases are exactly where you would like them to be.
The more aggressive approach is great, but it’s not enough to explain the vast difference in production from 2015 to 2016. The biggest change we have seen in Ramirez has been his exit velocity.
|wOBA||wRC+||BABIP||AVG Exit Velocity||AVG Launch Angle|
|2015 as LH||.289||81||.246||75.4||12.7°|
|2016 as LH||.353||120||.327||88.4||13.5°|
|2015 as RH||.258||60||.202||70.3||7.1°|
|2016 as RH||.357||123||.354||89.2||13.1°|
These gains in average exit velocity are staggering, and the production increase that has come along with that is observed in the corresponding wRC+, wOBA, and BABIP figures. A 13 mph increase from the left side, an 18.9 mph(!!) increase from the right side and a 14.8 mph increase overall. It must be noted that since we are still in the infancy of statcast, the year to year reliability and stability of exit velocity and launch angles when applied to individual batter analysis are not entirely known. That necessary caveat aside, the surge in Ramirez’s exit velocity is astonishing.
Of course, increased exit velocity is nothing without launch angle, and Ramirez has also brought his average launch angle up considerably as a right handed hitter. Line drives (typically hit between 10 and 25 degrees) should be the ultimate goal for a hitter like Ramirez and that’s exactly what he’s been able to do in 2016. With the exit velocity and launch angle increase, his batted ball profile has traded a significant percentage of ground balls for line drives. So while we haven’t seen a big change in contact rate, the type of contact he is making is improved.
So what are we to make of all this? Did Ramirez hit the gym, gain strength, and boost his bat speed a ton in the offseason? Is there an intangible, unexplainable thing that just clicked in his head one day that made him the the ball harder than ever? Or is this just the case of a young player growing comfortable in his first full year in the Majors, now better able to understand the nuances of facing major league pitching, and finally barreling up the ball more consistently? In theory it could be any of the three, but the safe bet is option number three. Ramirez has now adjusted to a full time role in the major leagues.
The Indians now find themselves leading the AL Central with a deep lineup that’s racked up the third highest fWAR in baseball (22.6). Francisco Lindor is a wunderkind, who alongside Jason Kipnis makes up one of the premiere double play combinations in baseball. In his first year in Cleveland Mike Napoli has joined with Carlos Santana to provide the Indians another power hitter with great on base skills. They even have a rookie of the year candidate with outfielder Tyler Naquin’s unexpected breakout.
All of these weapons ensure that despite the absence of Michael Brantley, the Indians will be a formidable opponent come playoff time. Just make sure not to forget about Jose Ramirez when you’re looking up and down their lineup. He may have been a utility player in the past, but now he’s making his presence felt as a legitimate everyday offensive threat.
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All statistics current through 8/20
Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisAnders.