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Jose Ramirez is off to the hottest “slow” start in baseball

BABIP be damned: the Indians third baseman is better than ever at the plate.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Going into tonight’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Jose Ramirez is batting .152/.291/.348. These are numbers that you might expect out of a utility infielder, a label which Ramirez vanquished for good last season during his turn as an all-star third baseman. There are some that believe those numbers represent an inevitable regression to the mean for the former “non-prospect”. These people believe that the Ramirez of the past two seasons is simply an aberration, an extended hot streak destined to cool, his true value lying somewhere in between his statlines of 2017 and 2015.

I’m pretty sure these people are insane.

By traditional metrics, Ramirez is struggling. By peering a layer deeper into the stats, I believe Ramirez is actually performing better at the plate than ever. “Performance” in this case represents that which a player can control. As Tyler Naquin and Yan Gomes of 2016 can attest, player control ends the moment the ball leaves the bat. We cannot fault Ramirez for posting a BABIP of .098 through 55 plate appearances. That is the fifth lowest in baseball, just below noted also-not-garbage players Edwin Encarnacion, Ryan Zimmerman, and LGFT Carlos Santana (GOD THAT HURT TO TYPE).

A decreased average on balls in play can also signal weaker contact, or a change in launch angle. It is true that Ramirez is hitting more fly balls and creating slightly less hard contract, but not nearly enough for a Mendoza line’s worth of average to disappear. I think it is also important to note that his infield fly ball rate is down, as his his ground ball rate. He is pulling the ball a smidgen more, too. For these reasons, we cannot say that major swing changes play any significant roll in the sudden reduction in positive outcomes.

We can then take a moment to examine plate discipline. If Ramirez is striking out more often, or simply making contact on bad pitches, that would explain a lot. Last season, Ramirez posted on of the better profiles in the league. He swung and missed on only 5.4% of pitches, swung at only 25.4% of pitches outside the zone, and even then made contract on 76% of them. Even on pitches inside the zone, he stayed relatively selective, offering 66.6% of the time.

This season, he whiffs on only 4.2%; swings at 21.7% outside the zone, hitting 77.4% of those; and offers only 63.2% of the time. One of the most disciplined hitters in baseball is now better at selecting pitches to drive.

We then arrive at the most impressive numbers of all. The career BB% and K% for Ramirez’s career are 8.3% and 10.2% respectively. To date in 2018, those numbers are 16.4% and 3.6%. He already proved to the league that he’s elite at not striking out. Last season, he was the fourth-best in the league. Now, he’s just threatening to walk at a triple-digit pace.

We can then sit down and review all of the evidence. Jose Ramirez is suffering from one of the worst BABIPsin all of baseball right now. This is despite a mild and potentially noisy change in his batted ball profile, no sign in power loss, an improved approach at the plate, and a newfound ability to draw walks like Joey Votto.

It is early in the season. 55 plate appearances does not a season make, though it does show us that Ramirez is fine. In fact, he is probably better than ever. If these trends continue and lady luck stops spurning Jose Ramirez, he’s going to be an MVP finalist in the American League.