José Ramírez Is a Star

Ramírez has exhibited a kind of power never anticipated by talent evaluators.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

More or less, the public perception of a ballplayer’s value correlates pretty strongly with the reality of that player’s value. Mike Trout, for example, is almost universally regarded as the best player in the game. The numbers bear that out. José Altuve and Kris Bryant have both won MVP awards in recent years. Their records suggest that such accolades are warranted.

That said, an examination of the FanGraphs leaderboard for WAR since 2016 — which you can examine for yourself by means of this convenient link — reveals a case where perception and reality seem to diverge. Here are the top players from same:

WAR leaders, 2016-18
Rank Player WAR
1 Mike Trout 19.5
2 Mookie Betts 16.8
3 Kris Bryant 16.2
4 José Altuve 15.4
T5 Francisco Lindor 14.2
T5 José Ramírez 14.2
Through games played May 13th, 2018.

You may be a more observant baseball fan than I am — or you may be from Cleveland (some people are!) — but I’m not sure that one out of every 10 reasonably aware fans would be able to say, without checking, that José Ramírez has recorded the fifth-most WAR of any hitter in the game over the last two-plus seasons. I’m not sure they would say he’s been more valuable than Josh Donaldson, Corey Seager, and Joey Votto over that span. But he has been.

I’m almost as confident that the average fan wouldn’t be able to correctly guess that Ramírez put up a 6.7 WAR season last year, which was better than everyone on that list above except for Trout and Altuve — or that Ramírez finished third in AL MVP balloting. Nor, in fact, do I think they would guess that Ramírez’s slash line over his last 1,400 or so big-league plate appearances (dating back to the beginning of the 2016 season) is a cool .312/.370/.532.

In fact, for a guy who made his major-league debut at age 20, back in 2013 (when the only other 20-and-under hitters in the league were Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Jurickson Profar) and a guy who, since the beginning of 2017, has produced the most WAR of any player in the game age 25 or under, José Enrique Ramírez doesn’t really get the national attention I’d argue he deserves. Consider, for example, this comparison of search interest by sub-region, courtesy Google Trends:

Ramírez has received greater attention in just one state — namely Ohio, where he plays half his games. In multiple states (South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming) Ramírez basically doesn’t even register as an entity. (Notably, the state in which Trout is most popular by this measure isn’t California, but actually New Jersey.)

This, of course, isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t properly celebrate Trout. They should — and, in the opinion of this writer, he should be an even bigger star than he already is. But I think Ramírez (among others) should be up there with him, and he’s not. Why? Well, that requires going back in time a little bit.

When Ramírez came into the league, his profile — insofar as he had one — was that of a fast kid with a decent glove, merely decent arm, and a could-be-above-average hit tool. Our own 2014 profile suggested he would likely amount to a “utility guy/pinch runner” while BP never placed him on a top-101 list. He certainly wasn’t someone with any power — or, for that matter, any expectations of it. Coming into his debut season in 2013, Ramírez had hit exactly seven (7) home runs over more than 1,000 minor-league plate appearances, and he was then and remains now 5-foot-9, if you’re feeling charitable. It seemed reasonable to assume, in those pre-Altuve days, that a power game wasn’t in his future.

And so, for the first few years of his career, evaluations tended to emphasize the fact that he wasn’t stealing quite as many bases as he’d been expected to (29 between two levels in 2014, but with only a 71% success rate) and that his arm wasn’t quite as strong as you’d like from a shortstop. But, hey, the Indians weren’t worried — they had a kid named Frankie Lindor coming up the ranks, and so perhaps this Ramírez fella would be best suited for a utility role.

But then in 2015, Ramírez hit six home runs in just 355 plate appearances and added 14 doubles to boot, all the while getting playing time at second base, third base, shortstop, left field, and DH. That was enough to get him regular playing time in 2016, and that’s when he really took off. As Eno Sarris noted for this site in early 2017, Ramírez, in 2016, both (a) raised his launch angle into the “line drive” range (15-25 degrees) and (b) raised his launch angle the most, among players whose average newly fell into that same range. Due to that adjustment, Ramírez became an awful lot more likely for power (60 extra-base hits in 2016, up from 23 in 2015, and on the road to 91 in 2017).

Since then, the trends that drove his breakout have either stayed constant or accelerated. Ramírez still makes contact upwards of 87% of the time overall — in fact, he’s at 90% exactly this year — but as pitchers have (understandably) stopped throwing him quite as many fastballs (down to about 52%, after sitting near 65% for his first four years in the league) and pitches in the zone (down below 40%, after sitting near 45%), he’s both stopped swinging as much outside the zone — even after adjusting for the reduced number of pitches he sees there — and started making more contact with pitches inside the zone. In fact, just one qualified hitter can say they do better than Ramírez’s 95.3% contact rate inside the zone, and of the players above 90% only one (Mookie Betts, .412) is even within 100 points of Ramírez’s .313 ISO.

There are no hitters, in other words — Betts and Trout, both of whom have more power, are perhaps the closest, and I’m not here to argue he’s better than they are — who have exactly Ramírez’s combination of elite plate discipline and consistent power. No other player, either, has so dramatically reduced their strikeouts (from 10.7% last year to 9.3% this year) while also increasing their walks (from 8.1% to 12.2%). This pair of sentences amazes me: last year, Ramírez produced 6.7 WAR and struck out more often than he walked. This year, everything about his power numbers has stayed the same except that now he’s walked more often than he’s struck out, and is giving himself more opportunities to exercise that newfound power. Those aren’t things merely good players do. Those are things superstars do.

Jeff Sullivan recently noted that Mike Trout is impossible, because he was already incredibly good and somehow got better, by doing less of the things that made him weak and more of the things that made him strong. Over the last five years, José Ramírez has done much the same. He’s flown under the radar a bit, because he’s not even the best young infielder on his team (Lindor) or even clearly the second-best player on his team (Corey Kluber would like a word). And he’s stayed hidden because he tends to start slow (his first-half numbers are consistently worse than his second-half figures) and so misses out on a lot of midseason attention, last year’s All-Star appearance notwithstanding. And he’s stayed hidden because he never had that first burst of press that other 20-year-old debutantes have enjoyed.

It’s time for Ramírez to step into the spotlight. He isn’t just one of the best young players in the game–though he is that, too–he’s one of the best players in the game, period. He’s an exemplar of everything the modern game says it values and a model of continuous improvement to boot. There’s no reason he shouldn’t get the press than Frankie Lindor gets, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the conversation for AL MVP again this year, too. José Ramírez has arrived, now, and it’s time to start paying close attention. Not many can do what he does.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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5 years ago

Not only is he a star, his hall of fame chances are probably higher than you think!

5 years ago
Reply to  Werthless

But that name……”Jose Ramirez”.

Sounds like an Alt-Right meme.