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SHINING A LIGHT ON JOSE RAMíREZ'S TERRIFIC SEASON

By Tom Verducci

Before the engraving starts on the American League MVP plaque for Mookie Betts, take a minute to appreciate the astonishing season of Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramírez. This is the same guy who hit eight home runs through his first 180 big league games, who was so lightly regarded that just two years ago the Indians signed a washed-up, 36-year-old Juan Uribe on the eve of spring training camp to play third base rather than Ramírez (truth is, Giovanni Urshela was ahead of Ramírez on the depth chart), and who is built like Uribe, his mentor, who had such a bad body he was known as “El Pavo”—The Turkey.

This season Ramírez has hit 37 home runs. With three more stolen bases, he will join Joe Carter (1987) and Grady Sizemore (2008) as the only Cleveland players with 30 homers and 30 steals in the same season. Bigger still, because of the freakish strength of his hands, Ramírez is tracking to become only the fifth 30-30 player ever with an OPS greater than 1.000 while striking out fewer than 80 times.

This kind of skill set—power, speed and contact at those elite levels—has been seen only in seasons from Vladimir Guerrero (2002), Barry Bonds (1992, 1996), Willie Mays (1957) and Ken Williams (1922).

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Betts (27 homers, 26 steals, 1.049 OPS and on pace for 88 strikeouts) will be close to that group. Against Ramírez he wins most every head-to-head competition on rate stats. But Ramírez, 25, has the distinct edge on volume over Betts, who missed 15 games in May and June. Ramírez has more home runs, RBI, walks, total bases, stolen bases, extra base hits and times on base.

“What he does in the batter’s box is the closest thing I’ve seen to David Ortiz,” said Victor Rodriguez, assistant hitting coach for the Indians, who formerly worked for the Red Sox. “I mean, he studies pitchers like nobody else. He has a sense not just of what pitchers will try to do, but what they will try to do with him. It’s like a gift. He seems to know what’s coming, and when he gets it he does not miss.”

“His hands,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said, “are incredibly strong. By now around here we know that when he comes back to the dugout after he hits a home run [and celebrates], you better be careful and at least brace yourself, because you could get hurt by those hands.”

Ramírez's career arc is astonishing. He never made a Top 100 prospect list. In 2014 Baseball America ranked him ninth in its organizational top 10, behind guys like Tyler Naquin, Cody Anderson, Dorssys Paulino, Ronny Rodriguez and C.C. Lee. He hit just seven homers in 1,067 plate appearances in the minors before being called up to the big leagues in September of 2013, just prior to his 21st birthday. He looked like a nice enough super-utility player.

While Uribe fizzled in 2016, Ramírez broke out (.312/.363/.462), which prompted Cleveland to smartly sign him to what now is a crazy cheap extension: seven years of control (if two team options are exercised) at $52 million max.

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Since then Ramírez just keeps getting better. His rise in slugging percentage since 2015 is a player development department’s dream: .340, .462, .583, .606. Here are his yearly home run totals in the pros: 1, 3, 3, 7, 7, 11, 29, 37. He’s added about 30 pounds to what was a 165-pound body. You probably have to go back to Howard Johnson (1987) and Sammy Sosa (1993) to find 30-30 players who climbed to such heights so unexpectedly.

What makes Ramírez such a punishing hitter is what he does with fastballs. A stunning majority of his value as a hitter is wrapped in his uncanny knack to hunt fastballs and just hammer them. These numbers (entering this weekend) are testament to the strength and speed of his hands:

• Ramírez is hitting.326 and slugging .738 off fastballs, but only .209 and .372, respectively, off breaking balls.

So why throw the man any fastballs? Truth is, pitchers try to be judicious with their fastballs against him. Matt Carpenter, for instance, has seen 133 more fastballs than Ramírez, and only Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton see a fewer percentage of fastballs in the zone.  It’s just that Ramírez pounces on the few hittable ones he sees.

• Ramírez has hit 31 home runs off fastballs, the most in the majors. (Khris Davis is next with 27.) Of those 31 homers off heaters, Ramírez has smashed 27 of them to the pull field.

“He stands right on the plate because he knows pitchers can’t beat him in,” Rodriguez said. “So that makes the outside [fastball] down the middle to him. And when he knows what to look for, and because his hands are so strong, he’s going to pull that pitch even if it’s away.”

• Ramírez has swung and missed at only 15 fastballs all year—out of 388 swings.

• Ramírez has struck out swinging only four times all year on fastballs in the strike zone. (The pitchers: Fernando Rodney, Nick Blackburn, Michael Fulmer and Kyle Gibson.)

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• Ramírez is on pace for a bWAR of 9.9, which threatens the 10.1 of Al Rosen (1953) as the best ever for a third baseman.

• He would be the fourth 30-30 third baseman in history (Tommy Harper, Johnson twice and David Wright), but he would own the highest OPS and the fewest strikeouts among them.

The Indians have had a laughably easy road to the postseason. They are 56-32 against losing teams and 18-24 against winning teams. They have won nine games all year against winning teams on the road. They will be first team since the 2010 Reds to win a division with a losing record and fewer than 25 wins against winning teams.

In short, they haven’t been challenged, which means there have been few big moments for Ramírez to showcase his MVP value. Big hits in September will not exist.

But we should begin to measure Ramírez against not just Betts but also the greatest power-speed-contact seasons in history. He is on track to hit more than 40 homers and steal more than 30 bases without striking out 80 times. Only one player in history ever had a season like that: Barry Bonds of the 1996 Giants. San Francisco finished last in the NL West that year, and Bonds finished fifth in MVP voting.

HOW HAS COLE HAMELS TURNED AROUND HIS SEASON WITH THE CUBS?

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By Jon Tayler

Among the rush of trades that went down in July, the one that sent Cole Hamels from the Rangers to the Cubs was easily overlooked. That made sense: The 34-year-old lefty looked close to finished with Texas, posting a 4.72 ERA and allowing 23 homers in 114 1/3 innings. Chicago gave up next to nothing for him and his addition seemed more designed to plug a rotation hole than an attempt to acquire the front-line pitcher he no longer resembled.

Fast forward a month, though, and Hamels has been arguably the most meaningful player moved at the deadline. In five starts for the Cubs, he’s allowed just four runs—three earned—in 34 innings for a sparkling 0.79 ERA. That includes not a single homer given up. On Thursday against the Reds, he even went the distance, giving up only a run in nine innings for his first complete game since Aug. 5, 2017. Most importantly, he’s taken the ace mantle for a Cubs rotation that’s been awful since the All-Star break. But how has the former All-Star turned it around on the North Side?

It starts, perhaps fittingly, with the fastball. Hamels’ four-seamer has never been a heater, never averaging more than 93 mph in his 12-year career. Consequently, he’s been a diverse pitcher, working in cutters, sinkers, changeups and curveballs to complement the fastball. But this season, his four-seamer fell apart: Despite throwing it just 40% of the time—a career low—it was tagged for a .378 batting average and .805 slugging percentage before his trade.

Things have changed dramatically with the Cubs, though. Despite that pitch’s ineffectiveness, Chicago has Hamels throwing it more often—up to 52.6% of the time. But the results aren’t what you’d expect: a .286 batting average and slugging percentage, as well as dips in average exit velocity (by nearly 10 mph) and launch angle (by four or five degrees). Hitters are no longer barreling Hamels’ fastball, which in turn has led to a spike in ground-ball rate, a drop in homers, and more effectiveness on his breaking and offspeed pitches, as both his changeup and slider have seen big jumps in swing-and-miss rate in the month of August.

The key is likely location. Check out these heat maps of Hamels’ four-seam fastball usage; the first is with Texas, the second with Chicago.

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Notice that, with the Rangers, Hamels was more or less putting his fastball right down the heart of the plate—a gamble for anyone, and downright foolish for someone who can barely crack 93. With the Cubs, though, he’s started burying the fastball in on righthanders and keeping it away from lefties.

There are other factors at play, too. Always a groundball-heavy pitcher, Hamels is probably benefiting from an upgrade in defense: The Cubs have the fifth-highest defensive efficiency in baseball (.703), while the Rangers rank 24th (.681). He’s also working more in the strike zone, helping to cut down on his walk rate.

What’s unclear is how long Hamels can keep this up. A home-run rate of, uh, zero is patently unsustainable, and teams will adjust to his newly fastball-heavy approach. But if nothing else, Hamels has at least kept the Cubs afloat at a time when they badly need it, with Jon Lester struggling, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks uneven, and the back of the rotation a constant mess. Up four games on the red-hot Cardinals in the NL Central, Chicago is in good position to claim a third straight division crown. For that, the team can thank a trade that looked minor at the time but has proven to be anything but.

EXAMINING JACOB DEGROM'S SEASON IN AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE (WHERE THE METS ARE AVERAGE)

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By Michael Beller

You already know plenty about the season Jacob deGrom is having. He leads the majors with a 1.71 ERA. His WHIP is below 1.00. He has 214 strikeouts in 174 innings. He may win his first career Cy Young. If he does it, he will have earned it pitching for a terrible team that may keep him from having a win-loss record better than .500, which would be a first in MLB history.

Forget about the season deGrom is having with the Mets. Let’s think about the year he could be having with a different team. Specifically, if deGrom were on a team perfectly average in every respect—getting the average run support for a team that scores an average number of runs per game and has an average bullpen—what would his record be?

First, let’s nail down deGrom’s average start. Keeping things as simple as possible by simply dividing innings pitched and runs by starts, deGrom goes seven innings and allowed 1.27 runs in an average outing. The league-wide average for runs per game is 4.45, which is 0.36 more runs per game than the Mets score. They score about half a run less for deGrom than their average, though. His support of 3.65 runs per game ranks 113th out of 126 qualified pitchers. Among those 126 pitchers, the average support per game is 4.48 runs. DeGrom, meanwhile, has received five or more runs in nine starts, and three or fewer in 17.