José Ramírez Is a Marvel

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This all started because I posted some GIFs of José Ramírez struggling. When I was looking into Sonny Gray’s marvelous sweeper, I captured him victimizing Ramírez twice in one game, once swinging and once looking. That led Marquee analyst and overall good baseball follow Lance Brozdowski to note that Ramírez is one of the worst hitters in baseball when it comes to dealing with opposite-handed sweepers, a pitch that most batters handle comfortably.

That sounded like an interesting topic for an article, so I started looking into it. Maybe it’ll still be an interesting topic for an article – “never say never on January 16” is a rule that I live by when it comes to finding things to write about. But my heart wasn’t in it. As I watched video and called up stats trying to build a case for the article, I kept smiling and laughing. I don’t want to bury José Ramírez, as it turns out; I want to praise him. So that’s what this is: some observations on one of the strangest and yet greatest players of our generation.

The Strangest Imaginable Power
Statcast has been measuring batted balls since 2015. In that time frame, 181 players have hit a ball harder than Ramírez. It’s not just the Aaron Judges of the world, either; we’re talking Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer, Pablo Sandoval, and Willi Castro. Those guys were all chosen at random, but the point is that Ramírez hardly has top-shelf power.

In that same time frame, 2015-present, Ramírez has hit 214 home runs, the 20th-most in baseball. Among players with 1,000 plate appearances, his .508 slugging percentage is 24th. By results, we’re talking about a great power hitter. By raw batted ball measurables, we’re looking at a utility infielder. Ramírez’s ability to get the most out of his power is downright epic.

How does he do it? A few tricks help. First, he pulls everything, and I do mean everything. It’s always a little more difficult to look at spray charts for switch hitters, but when someone’s approach is as polarized as Ramírez’s, it gets a little easier. Here are all his extra-base hits in 2023, broken out by handedness:

Even better, here are all of his extra-base hits since 2015, broken out the same way:

I’m always interested in hitters who out-produce their raw power by pulling the ball – witness my career-long fascination with Isaac Paredes. Ramírez does it from both sides of the plate. That’s impressive enough, but he somehow also avoids the biggest downsides of that style of hitting. Pull-happy hitters who put the ball in the air a ton generally run low BABIPs and don’t hit many line drives. He’s less affected by those weaknesses than your average pull hitter, though, because his bat control is downright silly. He hits line drives at an average clip, and though his BABIP is slightly lower than you’d think, it’s still .282 for his career, hardly a disaster.

Ramírez’s consistency is remarkable. When he puts the ball in the air as a righty hitter, he pulls it 40.4% of the time; when he does it as a lefty hitter, he goes to the pull side 40.5% of the time. And he gets those good outcomes – pulled fly balls – with great frequency: He hits the ball in the air 61% of the time as a righty hitter and 64% as a lefty hitter.

Power Without Drawbacks
Let’s limit our appreciation of Ramírez to the last half-decade, because he spent the beginning of his career as a different hitter, more slap-happy than powerful. From 2019 to now, Ramírez has consistently lifted and pulled. He has the 19th-lowest GB/FB ratio in the majors over that time (minimum 1,000 PA). In other words, he hits the ball in the air as frequently as pretty much anybody.

The average strikeout rate for the 18 hitters ahead of Ramírez? A cool 26.4%. These guys are the true-outcome kings of baseball. Patrick Wisdom, Joey Gallo, Cal Raleigh, and Adam Duvall are on this list. Mike Zunino and Byron Buxton make appearances. Mike Trout is a fly ball hitter these days – and he’s struck out 25% of the time in the last five years. Ramírez strikes out an unfathomably low 12.8% of the time.

It’s easy to understand the overall correlation here. Hitters who put the ball in the air frequently do so by meeting it on an uphill plane, just like Ted Williams taught 60 years ago. That style is more vulnerable to swing-and-miss issues on high fastballs. There’s also an obvious secondary effect: If you’re trying to put the ball in the air, you have to hit it hard. Grounders don’t perform much better depending on how hard you hit them, whereas for everything in the air, exit velocity matters a ton. Harder swings mean more whiffs; there’s a reason David Fletcher never strikes out.

Except, again, Ramírez isn’t like the other hitters. He’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to how frequently he makes loud contact when he puts it in the air – though it does help that he’s pulling everything, which helps him hit more homers than you might expect. But for the most part, guys with his elite contact rates (he’s 15th in baseball in contact rate over that time period) aren’t hitting the ball hard. The top three contact rate guys in baseball are Fletcher, Luis Arraez, and Steven Kwan. It’s just a whole different ballgame with Ramírez.

He’s Not Even Like His Peers
That’s not to say that there are no hitters like Ramírez. I lump him in with three other guys in my mind: Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, and Nolan Arenado. All three combine a fly ball approach with elite contact skills. Look how similar these guys are, and yet how different they are from almost everyone else:

Four of a Kind
Player Contact% K% GB/FB HR/FB BABIP wRC+
José Ramírez 86.2% 12.8% 0.72 13.0% .272 132
Mookie Betts 85.6% 15.4% 0.69 15.3% .294 145
Alex Bregman 87.0% 12.3% 0.76 12.3% .271 137
Nolan Arenado 81.9% 13.9% 0.74 14.1% .279 121

Even within this tiny tier of elite hitters, though, Ramírez stands out. See, I associate each of the other three with one particular style. Betts and Bregman wait you out. They each chase pitches outside of the strike zone less than 25% of the time – they’re both in the top 20 of the majors in that category. They swing less frequently than average at strikes, too: They have great strike zone judgment, but if you swing as infrequently as those two do at balls, you’re unavoidably letting a few strikes pass by.

That’s a reasonable way to live, because they both make so much contact that getting behind in the count isn’t the end of the world. Essentially, they’re waiting for a pitch that they can lift and pull, and trying pretty hard not to swing at anything else. That results in big walk rates – 12% for Betts and 13.8% for Bregman.

Arenado doesn’t have nearly their patience. He swings at 36% of pitches outside the strike zone, far more than league average. He swings a lot overall, in fact; he’s up there looking to make contact. As a result, he walks only 8% of the time, but he just has a superpower when it comes to making contact. He’s a bad ball hitter, a good ball hitter, and everything in between.

Ramírez walks quite a bit more than average – 10.6% of the time, and our sample cuts out his 2018 season (15.2% walk rate, 147 wRC+). Surely, he does it like Betts and Bregman, right? Wrong! He swings at an average clip, and he’s actually getting more aggressive in recent years. He’s not Arenado out there, but he’s trying to put the ball in play, which makes it all the more remarkable that he still draws walks at a huge rate.

The trick, if you can call it that, is that you can’t strike him out. He draws his walks by attrition. Exactly 150 batters have seen 2,000 or more two-strike pitches in the last five years. Arraez has the lowest strikeout rate of the pack on those pitches – 7.1%. That makes sense, because Arraez is up there trying to slap the ball into play at all times. Ramírez is second – second! He’s ahead of Jeff McNeil, Adam Frazier, Yuli Gurriel, and whatever other bat control standout you want to think of. He defends the zone, has a good sense of when to lay off of pitches, and makes contact with almost everything he swings at.

Everything Else
At the plate, Ramírez is without peer even in the group of elite hitters who are his closest comparisons. When he’s on the field, he might be even better. After playing all over the diamond early in his career, he’s settled in as a third baseman; he hasn’t played anywhere else since 2018. In the five years since then, Statcast pegs him as the sixth-best defensive third baseman in the majors, a fraction of a run behind Manny Machado. DRS thinks he’s 12th, and UZR third, in case you’re interested in some other comparisons.

He does that despite a throwing arm that could charitably be described as aspirational. Statcast measures the speed of high-effort infield throws and Ramírez has been below average every single year on record. Think about how much of third base defense is about putting every possible ounce of force in your body behind a bang-bang throw. Matt Chapman’s average throw in 2023 was faster than any ball Ramírez threw.

Ramírez’s defense is all about range and positioning, and he’s incredible at it. But it might be more accurate to say that he’s incredible at everything. Arenado and Bregman also play third base, so you might think that this kind of player – contact-happy defensive stalwarts who loop homers thanks to a lift-and-pull approach – is just a cookie-cutter group. But Bregman and Arenado are slow afoot and surrender value on the basepaths.

Arenado is 3.4 runs below average as a baserunner over the last five years. That’s completely fine, and he’s been a tremendously valuable player anyway, but it’s not because of his baserunning. Bregman has been even worse, at 12.9 runs below average. It’s fine, baserunning just isn’t his thing. Ramírez? He’s 28 runs above average on the basepaths in that time. He stole 28 bases last year and only got caught six times, and he’s also phenomenal at taking extra bases when he’s aboard.

That’s not purely due to straight-line speed. Ramírez isn’t slow, but he’s not one of the fastest runners in the game or anything. He’s just an instinctual genius with tremendous acceleration and anticipation. He’s 20th in baseball in homers in the last five years, and also fifth in steals. He’s the closest thing to Ronald Acuña Jr. – only he’s doing it with below-average raw power and good-but-not great speed. It’s truly remarkable.

I don’t really have much more to say than that. José Ramírez is remarkable. He’s an athletic marvel, in perfect command of his body at all times. He has great baseball smarts, a great approach at the plate, and the discipline to carry that approach out. Mookie Betts is probably my favorite player to watch, because he just seems to be in charge, whatever he’s doing. But Ramírez isn’t far behind him, either in the value he produces or the enjoyment I get from watching him. There are no predictive guesses in this article, and that’s on purpose. I’m not trying to predict what Ramírez will do in the future. I’m just trying to enjoy the show.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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EonADS
3 months ago

There are prospects often described as “skills over tools”, wherein their understanding of the game, technique, and control of the zone (pitching or hitting) are better than their physical ability. Ramirez is the ultimate expression of that stereotype. He has just enough physical ability to back up everything he does, but understands the game at such an elite level that nothing else really matters. It’s a lot like Steph Curry. Sure, he’s quick, and heaving up threes takes a lot of effort, but compared even to other point guards, Curry isn’t exceptionally fast or strong, exceptionally good in terms of making insane bullet passes or behind-the-back moves. His handles are great, but there are better guys and definitely several who are just physically better at handling. He just combines it all so effectively with perfect shooting form. His only weakness is defense. Ramirez doesn’t even have that problem.

I’m so glad he’s a Cleveland guy. We love him here.

Last edited 3 months ago by EonADS
tz
3 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

“Skills over tools” should be a tool in itself. Ramirez has had that tool since day one, which is why he’s bound for Cooperstown.

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Ramirez is kind of like Mookie Betts that way. Betts doesn’t have plus speed or raw power, and in fact he might be a touch below average in raw power. But Betts has insane coordination and instincts, which allows him to do all manner of things that outperform his raw power / speed / agility metrics.

Betts is better than Ramirez overall, but it’s the same sort of situation.