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Please keep pulling the ball, José Ramírez

The key to his success? Just ignore the shift

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s begin our description of José Ramírez in 2019 with numbers. Juicy, glorious numbers.

2017: 152 G, .318/.374/.583, 146 wRC+, 29 HR, 6.5 fWAR

2018: 157 G, .270/.387/.552, 146 wRC+, 39 HR, 8.0 fWAR

2019: 129 G, .255/.327/.479, 104 wRC+, 23 HR, 3.3 fWAR

A quick glance without any additional context might lead you to believe that an MVP-caliber player struggled with injury and had a down year as a result. Mind you, when 3.3 WAR is a disappointment you’re in a great spot. As close followers of the Tribe, however, we know that this isn’t exactly the case for Ramírez. The slump he endured at the end of 2018 and into the beginning of 2019 already feels like the stuff of legend. it had nothing do to with injuries, either. Here are his numbers for that stretch, which ran from 8/18/2018 to 6/12/2019:

Slump: 104 G, .186/.298/.285, 55 wRC+, 6 HR, 0.1 fWAR

That kind of slump just ... it’s not supposed to happen. Not to MVP caliber players. That’s more than half a season of replacement-level baseball (thanks entirely to above-average fielding and baserunning). Among qualified hitters, he was the 15h least-valuable player in baseball during that stretch by fWAR.

Yonder Alonso and Jake Bauers were the second and third worst, by the way.

The good news is that Ramírez turned it all around after June 12th, 2019. Here are his numbers for the rest of the season:

Resurgence: 63 G, .315/.361/.669, 158 wRC+, 19 HR, 3.3 fWAR.

You can further contextualize this in a few ways. 1) José Ramírez played replacement-level baseball for more than half of a season before once again becoming a top-ten hitter. 2) José Ramírez was so bad and then so good that all of his positive value came after the slump ended. 3) The only players to out-slug José Ramírez during that stretch were Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout.

We all watched the slump happen, but it’s difficult to really explain how stark the difference was, and how immediately he seemed to switch things on and off. I only continue to provide numbers and charts here because I think they do a great job of reminding us of that. Here is Ramírez’s rolling 20-game wRC+ over the last couple of seasons:

There are some pretty remarkable points in the graph where it is clear that something changed for Ramirez. So, what exactly is to blame for the slump? It’s impossible to imagine a player simply being that unlucky over such a long stretch of time. I’m sure it’s possible, but it’s utterly improbable. If it were just bad luck, Ramírez would have hit home runs at a rate reasonably close to his old numbers, while suffering only on balls in play. Or at the very least, he’d have as many hard hit balls during that stretch but improbably all of them went to straight-away center field and died on the warning track. We know that isn’t what happened.

It became clear at some point that Ramirez change his approach at the plate. Craig Edwards at FanGraphs wrote a marvelous article in June breaking down the exact causes: Ramírez started trying to beat the shift. Instead of continuing to rock the approach that led to a 10-WAR pace through early August of 2018, he became obsessed with hitting it away from the shift instead of over it.

Edwards’s article shows some good examples of Ramírez approach changing via heat map and gif, but when we superimpose his pull percentage on top of the wRC+ graph above, the truth becomes undeniable.

Not long after Ramírez abandoned his other-way approach and decided to focus on pulling the ball, he returned to MVP-caliber form. His hard-hit rate tracks pretty nicely with these results as well.

To me, the most remarkable part of all is that he broke his hamate bone in the midst of this resurgence. While most players experience sapped power after the surgery, he honestly seemed to be enhanced by it. Despite suffering from discomfort he slugged three home runs in his last four games of the season after missing an entire month due to surgery.

The season is over. So is the Slump. All indications suggest that the “old” José Ramírez is back, and maybe more dangerous than ever. Regardless of which position he plays in 2020, he’ll be a key contributor in the middle of the Indians’ lineup.