It was fair to wonder about the potential of the Indians’ offense when Peter Gammons went on live television during the Winter Meetings and reported that Michael Brantley would be out until August after learning his shoulder injury was worse than originally expected. It might’ve been fair to wonder about it before then; this was a unit that was below average by wRC+ in 2015, and added to their lineup only Rajai Davis, Mike Napoli, and Juan Uribe — a trio of 34- to 36-year-olds who were coming off just average offensive seasons themselves — in what was then seen as an underwhelming offseason. Everyone expected the Indians to pitch, but without Brantley, could an outfield of Davis, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall lead a playoff team?
And then Brantley’s shoulder issues wound up being worse than even Gammons reported, and Cleveland’s best hitter over the previous two seasons managed just 43 painful plate appearances before succumbing to another shoulder surgery that ended his season once and for all. Essentially one-third of their entire offseason busted — Uribe was designated for assignment in early August — and yet here we are, more than two-thirds of the way through the year, and the Indians have managed a top-five offense by runs scored and a top-10 group by wRC+. Arguably, it’s the hitting that’s been their biggest strength, before the pitching.
Even more shocking is that same lackluster outfield unit currently ranks third in WAR and sixth in wRC+. A lot of that has to do with Tyler Naquin tapping into unforeseen power and hitting like Anthony Rizzo, but even more important to the Indians’ success this season has been the fact that, despite Brantley’s lost year, they haven’t actually been without him at all. Turns out the key to not missing your All-Star left fielder is to simply clone him using a 5-foot-9 utility infielder:
|Brantley, 2016 projection||.299||.362||.449||.150||123||8.6%||9.4%||14||14||3.0|
|Ramirez, 2016 production||.305||.359||.453||.148||118||7.3%||11.2%||13||26||4.0|
Jose Ramirez has provided the Indians with a near-exact replica of Brantley’s 2016 preseason projected numbers, and due to Ramirez’s superior base-running and defensive abilities, he’s already outperformed Brantley’s full-season WAR projection in just 466 plate appearances. Ramirez even took the impersonation a step further by filling in as the team’s primary left fielder for much of the season — despite having played just 14 major-league innings in the outfield prior to this year — before returning to a more familiar post at third base upon Uribe’s dismissal from the team.
Brantley never struck out; Ramirez has never struck out. Brantley ran a league-best 92% contact rate; Ramirez this year is 11th, at 88%. Brantley walked enough to turn his elite batting average into an elite on-base percentage; Ramirez has done the same. Brantley suddenly began hitting for more power than folks had expected; Ramirez has 10 dingers.
And then there’s the matter of timing, which is perhaps the most important part of understanding the Ramirez story in 2016. Throughout his entire career, Brantley hit considerably better with men on base or in scoring position than with the bases empty, and for that, he earned a reputation in Cleveland as being a clutch hitter. It’s 2016; I probably don’t need to link to any number of the studies that have been done showing clutch not to be a repeatable skill. Almost always, an outlier clutch season is a fluke. Maybe Brantley is an exception to the rule. I don’t know. What I do know is, regardless of what it means moving forward, Ramirez has had undeniably excellent timing for the Indians this year, adding immense value to the team and making the Brantley connection even stronger.
Ramirez’s numbers with men on base and in scoring position, relative to with the bases empty, mirror Brantley’s. In high-leverage situations, Ramirez has a 169 wRC+ — in other words, he’s hit like David Ortiz in key spots. Ramirez, for the entirety of the year, has been a good hitter. In his most important plate appearances, he’s been a great hitter. The combination of those two facts is how you can sort an American League Win Probablity Added leaderboard and wind up with the following top five:
- Mike Trout, +5.03 WPA
- Josh Donaldson, +4.16
- David Ortiz, +3.57
- Jose Ramirez, +3.02
- Jose Altuve, +2.91
WPA measures only what happened inside the batter’s box — so Ramirez is receiving no credit for his league-leading base-running value or his defensive contributions — and with context included, Ramirez grades out right in between baseball’s two best hitters this season. If you’d like to give Ramirez full credit for the timing of his hits, there’s a case to be made he’s the team MVP.
Of course, by now we know better than to give hitters full credit for the timing of their hits. Ramirez has been fortunate to simply come to the plate in as many big spots as he has, and even then, he’s been somewhat fortunate for the hits that have fallen in: his BABIP with men on base is .389, compared to a more typical .286 mark with the bases empty. The clutch performance isn’t likely to repeat itself. The thing in which the Indians are more interested is whether the rest of it can repeat.
The projections currently see Ramirez as a roughly league-average hitter, which, paired with elite base-running value and the ability to play at least adequately almost anywhere on the field, has real value. The question is whether we can safely take the over on the projection. Ramirez’s improved numbers at the plate this season come mostly from what appears to be improved quality of contact: the soft-hit rate is down, the BABIP and slugging on contact are up, the exit velocity is up. He’s boosted his rate of balls hit in the air by eight percentage points — the sixth-largest increase of any hitter with at least 300 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons.
Watch a swing from this year…
… compared to last year…
… and you see a more exaggerated leg kick that makes for a more athletic and in-sync swing. Last year, the front foot too often got down before the hands came through the zone, killing the momentum in his swing. This year, the front foot’s more frequently in sync with the rest of the body, helping generate more authority.
That said, even the improved exit velocity ranks in the bottom-third of qualified hitters. Ramirez still isn’t a slugger, he’s just a better hitter than he was before. The Ramirez story is likely more about what’s already happened than what ought to happen in the future, but the nice thing about what’s already happened is there’s no erasing it. All the clutch hits have happened, and they’ve been monumental for a first-place club now being given a 94% chance to win their division despite the season-long absence of their best hitter. No taking that away. Even if the Indians shouldn’t expect Jose Ramirez to continue impersonating Michael Brantley moving forward, they’re sure glad that he’s done it so far.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.