While the whole of baseball was marveling at the brutal assault Edwin Encarnacion was laying upon the Minnesota Twins this past weekend, another battering was being unleashed at the hands of a different Cleveland batter.
Over the last week, Jose Ramirez has hit .457/.486/.943. He has been quite un-outable and singlehandedly won at least as many games as Edwin. The bombs he launched weren't quite as tremendous, and he got a handful of nice bloops to go his way, but a home run in the scorebook always looks the same. At this point, we're entering territory where Jose Ramirez may be the best player on the Cleveland Indians.
Even as I write this piece, I’m a little surprised at the notion this is reality. I even wrote a few weeks ago about his Jack of All Trades, Master of None attributes. it's a good way of doing things, and certainly makes for exciting baseball, but with what he's done the last week or so, he's hard to simply see as Francisco Lindor's sidekick. Even writing that at this point feels insulting. He should stand in no man’s shadow. And right now he’s kind of outplaying Lindor, albeit without the flash.
He hits all the normal, statistical marks you want out of your best player. he leads all Tribe position players in wins above replacement with 2.3 fWAR and 1.8 rWAR and edging out Lindor on both marks. Which does speak to Lindor’s own excellence, but right now he’s taking a back seat. Ramirez trails only Lonnie Chisenhall in wRC+ at 140, and it’s only three points in nearly twice as many plate appearances. He leads the team in batting average, also trails only Chisenhall in slugging percentage and Edwin Encarnacion in on-base percentage. In essence, he’s having a second breakout season.
Is this reactionary? Yes, quite. After all, anyone would look like the best player on their team if you just judged it on one weeks’ inferno. It also still feels weird to consider Ramirez this way. Less than a year ago he was still just a surprise who would surely cool off. There was no way he could replace Michael Brantley, even if that’s literally what he did as August Fagerstrom wrote last August. He may have taken the right steps to even surpass Brantley at his best by doing what Brantley can’t.
Brantley’s best attribute, even before he broke out, was a preternaturally high contact rate. He makes contact 91.3 percent of the time for his career, and 95.9 percent on balls in the zone. Once he got Dad Strength, he morphed into an offensive centerpiece. But he also has been grounder-heavy in his batted ball profile — 47.7 percent for his career and now this year 50.1 percent. It’s not a bad thing really, it just limits the damage he can do. It’s part of the reason he’s only hit 20 home runs in a season once. He’s a contact/doubles hitter. They’re exciting to watch because they make things happen on the field. But they don’t hang runs as easily.
When Ramirez was replicating Brantley’s projections in 2016, he did not quite replicate the same ground ball rate (40.9 percent) even if the 89 percent contact rate and 91.2 percent zone contact rate were close to Brantley’s. But the outcomes were close enough for it to be weird. All his contact and batted ball rates have shifted towards a more power and flyball-centric approach. His ground ball rate has fallen to 37.4 percent as his flyball rate has taken up the slack, rising to 39.7 percent. His contact rates have fallen to 86.4 percent overall and 90.6 percent in the zone. He’s striking out more — 13.1 percent compared to 10 percent of the time last year, while his walk rate has risen nearly a point to 8 percent. He’s also swinging at balls out of the zone less (25 percent compared to 27.7 percent last year) and attacking balls in the zone more (66.9 compared to 64 percent last year). Basically, he’s added power at the expense of a few more strikeouts.
These seem subtle number adjustments, and it would be easy to take too much stock in it. Not everyone is joining the Flyball Revolution, some are just trying to hit the ball hard. Some, like Rammirez, are just growing and getting stronger. What we’re seeing is the type of incremental growth of a young player (he’s only 24!) that you just pray for. Considering he came from nowhere to legitimately on the cusp of just taking the 3-hole from much more established players, it’s hard to overstate Ramirez’s incredible feat. You can’t just take a graph out and start assuming continued linear growth from him, but at this point he’s making it hard not to jump to conclusions. What if he ends up with over 20 home runs, and keeps hitting like .310 or so and includes the raised walk rate, while playing excellent defense? That offensive recipe got Brantley a third place finish, and he wasn’t as good defensively. What then? How will we deal with the exploded heads around Northeast Ohio?
But in all seriousness, this is a marvel to behold. He’s doing all the Lindor things that were sort of expected of Lindor this year. He’s also the best second and third baseman and maybe the best left fielder on the team. Is it honestly out of the question to expect MVP votes for him were he to maintain it? That’s a tall order since he still is to to take about two hundred more at-bats. But it’s not out of the question. Right now, he’s the best player on a first place team. That’s a step in the right direction.