Hold onto your helmets, our boy may be back.
After an abysmal end to last season and start in 2019, José Ramírez is finally looking like himself.
First, it’s important to set the table of just how bad Ramírez had been over a stretch that spanned almost a calendar year. From August 15, 2018 to June 12, 2019, José slashed a measly .186/.299/.291 with seven home runs and a rage-inducing .202 BABIP. Digging deeper into the numbers, he was making contact just 84.9% of the time on all pitches — down almost 5% from where he was from the start of his breakout 2016 season to the start of The Slump.
During The Slump, opposing pitchers pumped curveballs and sliders at him, anything to avoid giving him a fastball to turn into one of a patented “home run pitch,” also known as a ball that José puts into the upper deck. He saw 7% fewer fastballs during The Slump than he did during that golden age of 2016 through most of 2018, and few he did see he wasn’t hitting well, anyway.
Ramírez wasn’t hitting the ball particularly hard in The Slump, but he wasn’t known as a hard hitter prior to it, either. It’s one of the many reasons PEDs were a lame scapegoat for his struggles. José’s bread and butter has always been contact.
Looking at his rolling averages from FanGraphs, you can see the massive spike as of late in his overall contact rate, which peaked at 96% in late June. Overall, since the end of The Slump on June 14 to now, Ramírez’s contact rate sits at 94.1%. In that same time, he’s making contact on pitches in the zone 97.1% of the time and pitches out of the zone 87.9% of the time. He’s also swinging and missing just 2.5% of the time; best in the majors in that span.
All of this has culminated in a tremendous streak of games for José in which he’s slashed .304/.349/.574 with six home runs, nine doubles, and has walked (7.1%) just as often as he has struck out (7.1%).
Whether or not it’s a real mentality or pure happenstance, José Ramírez also doesn’t seem to care about the shift anymore. It looked like it was getting in his head at one point as he attempted to shoot everything the other way during The Slump, instead pulling the ball and whacking dingers like he did in his peak. He’s back to yanking the ball since The Slump ended — 52.8% of the time, with the added boost of a 19.4% line-drive percentage. Both are much closer to his pre-slump days.
The eagle-eyed among you will recognize that this is just a month-long sample size, a 126 PA stretch that will be lost among the million other random blips of baseball data. But for now, regardless of its long-term implications, it’s built a level of confidence within Ramírez that probably hasn’t existed since last August. That has to count for something, especially considering the lowest of lows he hit for so long.
So, the only important question: Exactly how back is José Ramírez?
The worrying trend of José not being able to hit curveballs and opposing pitchers taking advantage of it is still there to an extent. Similar to how pitchers refuse to just attack Tyler Naquin’s weaknesses lately, Ramírez is back to seeing fastballs the majority of the time — a little over 53% since The Slump ended. Opposing pitchers have just ... stopped attacking José Ramírez like they did for so long.
Part of this, unfortunately, could have to do with the quality of pitching José (and Tyler Naquin and the rest of the Indians, for that matter) have faced over the last six weeks. He’s faced the Tigers 10 times, the Reds twice, the Royals six times, the Rangers four times, and the Twins three times. He hit well against just about all of them — and it’s not entirely fair to discount his hot streak only because he’s faced bad teams — but it’s something to keep an eye on. If these bad teams are using bad pitchers with bad scouting reports, maybe there’s a reason José wasn’t attacked the way he was during The Slump.
On the flip side, though, José wasn’t always so awful against curveballs, and the ones he has seen post-slump his pitch value against curveballs has been 1.4 in a five-week span. For context of the cumulative pitch value statistic — in all 458 PAs of The Slump, he had a weighted curveball value of 1.0, meaning he just barely had a positive run expectancy against them over a year’s worth of games.
It’s the same story for sliders. At his worst, José had a -0.8 weight pitch value on sliders, and after The Slump he’s already accumulated 2.7.
The question becomes: can he keep this up when he’s facing good pitching for weeks at a time? Luckily José has history on his side. We’ve seen him do it before, and it’s hard to argue with the two-plus seasons of MVP caliber baseball he put up prior to last August. The only real thing that matters now is if he can keep it up for another four months.