Player decline is a varied and interesting topic. Hitters become less effective and eventually go away for a multitude of reasons, from injury to an increasing inability to make contact, or the right types of contact. The increasing availability of batted-ball data makes it possible to analyze decline in new ways. Declining authority levels, increasing pull tendencies; these are only a couple of the variables that can hasten a hitter’s descent. Today, let’s take a look at Aramis Ramirez, focusing on his 2014 batted-ball data to uncover some information that could have foretold his ongoing rapid decline in this, his final MLB season.
Aramis Ramirez has had one very interesting and productive career. A basic perusal of his career record is quite an eye-opener; he’s not quite a Hall of Famer, but he’s certainly worthy of discussion and consideration. A .285-.343-.495 career line, about 2200 hits, 370 homers; pretty darned impressive, and quite high on the all-time lists for third basemen.
He raced through the minor leagues, batting .304-.403-.514 in 1816 plate appearances, almost always as one of the very youngest players at his level. Each season, I compile a list of top minor league position player prospects, based on production relative to league and level, adjusted for age. He qualified for my list in each of this three full seasons in the minors, ranking #7 in 1997, #36 in 1998 and #6 in 1999. This marked him as a potential future star. Basically, he was a reasonable offensive facsimile of his contemporary, Adrian Beltre.
Ramirez got his first crack at major league pitching at age 20 with the Pirates, but uneven performances caused him to go up and down between the majors and Triple-A until he nailed down a job for good at age 23, when he unfurled a .300-.350-.536 line in 2001. Except for a poor season in 2002, he then settled in for a decade-plus run as Aramis Ramirez, well above average major league third baseman. His single-season OPS+ level never exceeded 139, but sat in a narrow band in the 120’s and 130’s for 10 of the 13 seasons between 2001 and 2013. Remarkable, remarkable consistency.
He has virtually no “black ink” in his historical record; he has led the league in exactly one category, with 50 doubles in 2012. He has made three All Star teams, and garnered MVP votes in five different seasons. No, he’s not a Hall of Famer, but he would make a fine inductee in the Hall of Very Good.
Prior to the 2012 season, the Brewers signed him to a three-year, $36M contract, with a mutual $14M option for 2015. The club appeared to be on their way to the postseason for much of 2014, before a September collapse that nearly dropped them to the .500 mark. Faced with the decision between rebuilding and taking one more shot with the same nucleus, the Brewers decided upon the latter, and exercised Ramirez’ option.
There was obviously much more to consider than Ramirez’ status as the Brewers decided on their approach to the 2015 season. Today, however, let’s simply focus on their call at third base. What could have been deduced by looking at Ramirez’ 2014 batted-ball portfolio that might have influenced this significant decision?
To get a better feel for Ramirez’ true talent level entering the 2014 offseason, let’s look at his 2014 plate appearance frequency and production by BIP type data:
|FREQ – 2014|
One of the many strong positives driving Ramirez’ offensive game over the years has been his rare ability to hit for power while minimizing strikeouts. His K rate percentile rank has been over 50 only once since 2008, and his 2014 mark of 18 was his second lowest since then. The most notable piece of 2014 frequency data was his extremely low walk rate; his BB rate percentile rank of 3 dropped precipitously from 79 in 2013. This is actually not unusual for an aging player in the final stages of his career; round, counting numbers start to matter more. As 2014 progressed, thoughts ranging from “2500 hits” to “400 homers” quite likely started to fill Ramirez’ head, and caused changes in his offensive approach.
Ramirez has always posted an above average popup rate (64 percentile rank in 2014), but in the past, always possessed the long ball power to justify it. He has always possessed a fairly significant fly ball tendency (fly and grounder percentile ranks of 86 and 17, respectively in 2014), but never quite to the extreme that it became a concern. Ramirez posted identical line drive percentile ranks of 54 in both 2013 and 2014, and they accurately represent his true-talent ability to square up the baseball.
So, we have an excessively free swinger with a strong fly ball tendency; batted-ball authority will be a huge key as to whether Ramirez can be productive moving forward, and his 2014 production by BIP type data will act as a barometer to that end:
|PROD – 2014|
|Ar.Ramirez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
Ramirez’ actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
Now this is one weird profile, especially for a third baseman relied upon for home run power for much of his career. Ramirez batted a light .226 AVG-.599 SLG on fly balls last season, for an actual 71 REL PRD. Miller Park is a quite friendly park for fly balls; adjusted for context, he would have posted a mere 58 ADJ PRD in the air in a neutral park. Let’s put that 58 ADJ PRD in perspective; below are the other 2014 NL batting title qualifiers with fly ball ADJ PRD marks in the 50’s:
Does the Aramis Ramirez we have grown to appreciate over the years belong on that fly ball authority list? A 370 career homer guy, matched up with spray hitters like LeMahieu and Span? This is a very clear indicator that Ramirez’ core offensive skill, his power, has left the building.
The other extremely notable item in the above table is Ramirez’ grounder production. He batted .304 AVG-.338 SLG on grounders last season, for an actual 156 REL PRD. Adjusted for context, based on his hard/soft grounder rates, that number climbs even higher to a 176 ADJ PRD. This represents the second best context-adjusted grounder production in the game last season, behind only Miguel Cabrera (203).
This is actually pretty fascinating; a guy who didn’t hit his fly balls or liners (101 ADJ PRD) particularly hard last season, hit his grounders exceptionally so. A little deeper look, however, reveals how this took place. Ramirez didn’t post a high average grounder velocity because he hit the ball particularly hard; he did so because he almost never hits a weak, roll-over ground ball. It’s the same concept as the average temperature for a month being very high because the overnight temperatures didn’t drop very far, as opposed to the daytime temperature being unusually high. It’s a stealthy, under-the-radar way of being productive.
Even his productivity on grounders has a blemish, however. Ramirez has evolved into an excessive ground ball puller at this stage of his career. His “pull ratio” on the ground of 7.25 was one of the highest in the majors last season, making him a fairly automatic infield overshift candidate. Even with his uncanny ability to avoid the weak, roll-over infield grounder, there is plenty of downside to his grounder production thanks to his extreme pull tendency.
Put all the BIP types together, and his productivity on grounders offsets high popup rate and his lack of authority on fly balls, giving him an overall near MLB average 101 ADJ PRD. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and his true talent is a 105 ADJ PRD, which runs closely in tandem with OPS+. But that’s a 105 OPS+ that relies extremely heavily on his ability to remain the second best producer on grounders in the game, something you simply cannot expect from a now 38-year-old, slow-footed third baseman.
Moving forward into 2015, it would have been foolhardy to project anything better than MLB average production on grounders (.245 AVG-.267 SLG) from Ramirez. Keeping all of his 2014 frequencies and other production levels constant, his projection for 2015 would have been .256-.286-.388, or a 90 ADJ PRD/OPS+. Is that worth $14 million? I think not. There is the small matter of who would play third if Ramirez were to have been let go; Hector Gomez and friends weren’t going to get it done.
2015 is young, and sample sizes are small. Ramirez is hitting even more fly balls than in the recent past, and they aren’t going anywhere. He’s still hitting plenty of popups, and he has yet to draw his first walk of the season. To put it gently, the trend lines aren’t pointing in the right directions.
Each individual decline is unique. Adam Dunn’s batted-ball authority declined to the point that it could no longer offset his massive K rate. That’s a bit more common type of decline compared to the one we’ve discussed today. It’s not every day that a player’s last vestige of offensive viability is his ability to avoid hitting weak grounders. That’s Aramis Ramirez’ story, however, which has now appeared to reach its final chapter.