A few weeks ago, following a post about the rather poor defensive baseball being played in Cleveland, I found myself in the comments debating the merits of middle infielder Jose Ramirez. Today I want to delve deeper into what Ramirez does and does not bring to the table, what that could look like over a full season, and what that means for his future.
The pro-Ramirez argument starts with his defense, as it should. If Ramirez had played SS all year and maintained the defensive prowess he has shown thus far, he would rate (by UZR/150) as the fourth best defensive SS in baseball. It says something about his expected 2015 replacement - Francisco Lindor - that "on pace for 4th best" seems somewhat yawn-inducing.
The anti-Ramirez camp will counter that defensive metrics can be fickle (Johnny Peralta is currently 3rd in the same metric), so there is a lot of volatility here, but Ramirez has shown the potential to be a top-tier defensive SS.
The anti-Ramirez argument starts with his offense, as it should. Ramirez had 158 PA going into Wednesday night's game, and among SS with 150+ PA, his wRC+ was 34th out of 45 eligible players. His wOBA was 35th. Ramirez stands out as a weak hitter even among a relatively weak-hitting population.
The pro-Ramirez cohort will note that Ramirez was abysmal during a May call up, but has been solid with the bat since he was called back up in July. In fact, going into the Wednesday game, Ramirez had a wRC+ of 100 - exactly league average - in the second half. His .311 wOBA in the period is just above the average for a SS (.304) in 2014.
The projection systems don't think either his brutal overall line for the season or the solid second-half line are accurate; both ZiPS and Steamer see him as about a .290 wOBA/85 wRC+ hitter.
Comps for Ramirez (assuming his defense remains about the same):
- His full season performance (.271 wOBA, 72 wRC+), falls a tick below Andrelton Simmons (.279/75) and a tick above Alexi Amarista (.269/72). Ramirez about splits the difference between the two on defense as well, though he is a bit closer to Amarita on offense and a bit closer to Simmons on defense. Amarista has been worth .9 fWAR; Simmons is at 2.0. Assuming Ramirez maintained his 2014 rates for a full season, he'd likely be around 1.3-1.5 WAR right now, slotting him at #5 on the team, behind Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chinsenhall.
- If we instead assuming his second-half performance is legit (.311/100), his line is fairly close to J.J. Hardy's (.314/97), who plays similarly good defense. Hardy has been worth 3.4 fWAR on the season, which would put Ramirez third on the team.
- If we take the projection system numbers, Ramirez would split the difference and sit at roughly 2.5 fWAR, which would have him coming in just a step below Santana for 4th on the team.
Of course there are other factors to consider, not the least of which is Ramirez's age. If Ramirez played a full season at the projected rate of offense and his current rate of defense in 2014, he would have put up one of the 20 best seasons by a SS under the age of 22 dating back fifty years. The ability to hit as a below average but not disastrous MLB hitter at his age is not something to ignore.
The problem is, he has not actually done that. He hasn't put up a full season of anything, and the partial season he has put up has been marred by pretty poor offense, overall. It's possible he has figured some things, and that's why his numbers are better lately, but it's also possible that it's just small-sample noise, and his potential value is largely predicated on one of the least-understood and worst-measured parts of the game. (defense)
Ramirez doesn't seem to have a position for next year. The good news is we don't have to know where Ramirez fits in yet. Whether it's because they think he needs more seasoning or because they want to control his service time, Lindor is unlikely to be the Opening Day shortstop, and that should give us another couple months to see how Ramirez does.
If he proves to be a league average bat, he could the Indians to make a tough call, finding a trade partner for him or perhaps even Jason Kipnis. Or, potentially Kipnis goes back to the outfield (where he played in college). If Ramirez's bat holds up, he'd be a terrific utility guy off the bench, who can fill in at multiple positions, and be used as a good pinch runner or defensive replacement.
Either way, he's a valuable asset with intriguing upside and, just as importantly, a high floor.