The Cleveland Indians have the fifth-best offense in the American League, according to FanGraphs’ park adjusted wRC+, thanks in large part to their big-name trio of Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, and Michael Brantley. But leading the offense is a lesser-known player: Jose Ramirez.
In 2016, the 24-year-old third basemen enjoyed what was at the time the best season of his career. He posted an .825 OPS, hitting 12 home runs and stealing 22 bases. He was 22 percent better than the average hitter, according to FanGraphs. But it was easy to dismiss Ramirez’s performance as a fluke, mostly due to the fact that he was never considered a top prospect throughout his minor-league tenure.
Ramirez has emphatically proved all of his doubters wrong. As of July 3rd, he is the seventh best qualified hitter in the majors with a wRC+ of 151, ahead of names such as Buster Posey, George Springer, and Yonder Alonso.
He already has 15 home runs on the season, after having only 13 in 335 career minor-league games. He is the league leader among qualified third basemen in slugging percentage, at .584. He is one back of the league leader in doubles at 26, and is tied for sixth with several others with 4 triples. Ramirez, and his 5’9” 180-pound build, has transformed into one of the top power hitters in the league, while maintaining his already excellent contact skills.
The most remarkable part of Ramirez’s success is that he’s not selling out for his newfound power. His strikeout rate is just 1.6 percentage points higher than it was in 2016. He is still one of the best in the league at avoiding the strikeout: his strikeout rate is twelfth best in the major leagues, at 11.6 percent.
Ramirez avoids strikeouts by making a remarkable amount of contact. His contact percentage is tenth best in the league at 87.3 percent. He swings and misses at just 5.5 percent of pitches, which is eleventh best in the league. He is alongside Joey Votto, Mookie Betts, and Anthony Rendon when it comes to players who can hit for power and avoid striking out.
There isn’t much in Ramirez’s profile that suggests regression is coming. His batting average on balls in play is actually slightly lower than it was in 2016; he is simply hitting the ball harder in 2017. His average exit velocity is up 1 MPH, to 89 MPH, and his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives (the kind of hits where exit velocity matters most) is up 1.7 MPH, to 92 MPH. The average distance on his balls in play is 23 feet further in 2017 than 2016, and his barrel percentage has doubled from 3 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in 2017. The Statcast measurements agree: Ramirez is an all-around improved hitter.
One of the best ways to take advantage of harder contact is to hit the ball in the air more often, and Ramirez is doing just that. His GB/FB rate is the lowest of his career, at 0.96; for the first time in his career, he is hitting more fly balls than ground balls. His line drive percentage is exactly the same as 2016 at 22.8 percent, but Ramirez’s additional fly balls aren’t bringing extra infield pop ups with them. His IFFB rate is down to 6.7 percent, after posting a 9.8 percent mark in 2016.
On top of his outstanding offense, Ramirez has been one of the best fielding third basemen in the league. He is fourth-best in UZR/150, and his defensive flexibility — he spent most of the first month of the season at second base filling in while Jason Kipnis was out with an injury — allows the Indians to mix and match when injuries hit. Just about everything is going right for Ramirez, and Cleveland is taking full advantage.
But not quite everything. Although he has been the second-fastest third basemen in the league according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed, he has had a miserable season on the basepaths, after being one of the top baserunners in the league last season. He has been worth -3 runs on the bases so far this season, according to FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus’ base running metrics seem to agree with Fangraphs. Ramirez has certainly not been a good baserunner thus far in 2017, but his overall career body of work suggests he should improve upon what has been just three bad months of base running in 2017.
Add all of Jose Ramirez’s greatness up and you get the fourth-best position player in the American League, according to FanGraphs, at 3.4 WAR, just 0.1 WAR behind Astros teammates Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Ramirez is easily a top-ten MVP candidate at this point in the season, if not top-five, and he’s already a starter for the AL all-star squad. If the Indians can hold their perch atop the American League Central, Jose Ramirez will be battling along side rookie star Aaron judge, the Astros middle infield duo, and Mookie Betts for the American League MVP honors. That’s a good place to be for a player with no prospect pedigree.
Dylan Svoboda is a writer for Beyond The Box Score and BP Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter at @svodylan.