Here’s a not-fun little exercise. Name these two players through the first 50 games.
Player A: .190/.274/.277, .250 wOBA, 50 wRC+
Player B: .199/.299/.301, .269 wOBA, 61 wRC+
Not much separation there. Not much value, either. Player A is Jason Kipnis in 2018 and player B is José Ramírez this year. I think most everyone knows the story about Kipnis and how he salvaged some value from his season by slashing .254/.339/.454 with a .342 wOBA and 112 wRC+ in the 97 games that followed his first 50.
However, even with his turnaround, Kipnis was not that valuable overall; he finished the season with 2.1 fWAR, which is ... fine, and 70 wRC+, or 30% worse than league average (other metrics liked him even less, with 1.6 bWAR and 1.1 WARP). So, even if Ramírez is about to turn a corner, as nearly every site wants you to think, it’s reasonable to wonder what his ceiling is for 2019 at this point.
The problems with José aren’t 2019-specific, of course. As noted by Devan Fink at FanGraphs, it’s possible that the issues coincide with facing more shifts and pressing to beat it. I wrote about one strategy the entire team could use to counter the shift, but other than just trying to clobber the damn ball over everyone’s head is there something else our resident Mario Kart champ could be doing?
It’s probably time to forget about MVP votes or even sniffing the eight-win threshold. Ten games back of the Twins after Memorial Day and desperately seeking offense, at this point it’s probably time to start throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.
What about giving splits the middle finger?
Yes, he was signed in part because of his naturally talented swing from both sides of the plate, and for his career Ramírez is actually a better hitter from the left side: career wRC+ of 121 as a lefty and 112 as a righty. But, because he has never faced a same-handed pitcher at the highest level, those numbers are also his versus right-handed pitcher and versus left-handed pitcher results. In 2019, José has a 50 wRC+ as a lefty compared to 80 as a righty; another way to look at these are as his almost always shifted (79.4%) and just sometimes shifted (22.7%) numbers.
It bears repeating: in his professional career, Ramírez has never faced a pitcher throwing from the same side as he was hitting. This is not crazy, as the same is true for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana has just five such plate appearances in his career (all as a righty versus a righty), but it means asking José to face a righty as a righty is kinda crazy. Crazy might be what is needed, though.
One of my favorite parts in The MVP Machine came toward the end, when Brian Bannister, assistant pitching coach for the Red Sox, was discussing Matt Barnes’ performance in game 2 of the 2018 ALCS. In that appearance, an inning and a third, Barnes threw 93% curves (14 of 15 pitches); in 2018, overall, Barnes threw just 40.7% curves. Bannister explained the decision by saying “Once you’ve established that you’ll do something that’s so many standard deviations away from what you’d normally do, I think it actually makes you better ... All the advance reports go out the window.”
This isn’t a perfect parallel for Ramírez, and hitting from the right side against a righty could backfire and result in him corkscrewing himself into the ground like Javy Báez against sliders diving out of the zone (which would be great if he had a 148 wRC+ like Báez). But could it be worth the risk? Simply for the psychological effect of not facing the shift, could José benefit? I can’t answer that. I can say that, league-wide, right-handed hitters have a 92 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, which isn’t great but would be a 40-point gain for Ramírez.
At the very least, it seems like it could be something worth trying. And that’s pretty much all anyone is asking for at this point. Throw it at the wall, see if it sticks. Just try.