- Jose Ramirez's decline almost defies explanation. He was in the company of Hall of Famers after terrific seasons in 2016 and 2017—now he's among the major's worst hitters. What happened?
CLEVELAND — Jose Ramirez is broken, and nobody around the Indians seems to know why.
It is one of the strangest, steepest declines in recent memory. In a span of 102 games, beginning Aug. 18, 2018, Ramirez fell from being one of the five to 10 best players to the worst hitter in baseball, at least by batting average among regulars. The Cleveland third baseman has batted .189 over those 102 games. No one else with at least 250 at-bats has been worse. It has been not just his hitting. His defense has collapsed in that same span.
“It’s been hard on him,” said Victor Rodriguez, one of the Indians’ hitting coaches. “We tell him every day, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your season.’ But it’s hard not to worry when the numbers are staring at you every day.”
To understand the magnitude of this collapse, you have to understand the historic proportions of how well Ramirez played in the previous three seasons. Once thought of as a utility player–the Indians signed a toasty 37-year-old Juan Uribe in 2016 to be their third baseman because nobody thought Ramirez was ready to be an everyday player–Ramirez broke through that year with a .312/.363/.462 season. Then in 2017 he finished third in MVP voting and again in 2018 (even with his late-season collapse last year) while posting OPS+ of 145 and 150 at ages 24 and 25.
Only great players, not fluky players, post back-to-back seasons that good in their prime years. Only 25 players who have been retired for at least five years posted an OPS+ of 145 or better at ages 24 and 25. Twenty of them are Hall of Famers. The other five are borderline Hall of Famers: Fred McGriff, Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Dick Allen and Charlie Keller.
Ramirez, a switch-hitter, stood right over home plate like a sentry, daring pitchers to try to beat him inside with fastballs. Nobody could.
With his strong hands and rounded but powerful body, Ramirez flashed one of the quickest swings in all the game. From Opening Day 2017 to Aug. 18, 2018, Ramirez pulled 42 fastballs for home runs. Nobody else turned on more than 33 fastballs for home runs.
And then, it just stopped.
Since then Ramirez has pulled just four fastballs for home runs. He hasn’t hit a homer of any kind since May 16–even with the baseball flying like never before. His power is missing. His ability to hit the ball squarely has declined.
The root cause of how such a good hitter could become so bad so quickly remains a mystery. But the symptoms are obvious. Here is an examination of Ramirez’s decline by comparing his numbers in 2017-18 before Aug. 18, 2018, and what he has done since:
1. Ramirez can no longer hit fastballs.
|Batting Average vs. Fastballs|
|Before Aug. 18||.336|
|After Aug. 18||.190|
2. Ramirez is facing more shifts.
|Percent of Pitches Facing a Shift|
|Before Aug. 18||18.1%|
|After Aug. 18||60.1%|
“Sometimes he sees the shift,” Rodriguez said, “and like he did [Friday] night he gets a fastball in and tries to hit it the other way. And that’s when he pops up. I tell him, ‘You have to hit the same, like the shift is not there.’ Do what you always do.”
3. His batting average on balls in play has cratered:
|Before Aug. 18||.301|
|After Aug. 18||.209|
4. But that’s not just due to bad luck. It’s because he’s not hitting the ball as hard …
|Before Aug. 18||88.6 mph|
|After Aug. 18||87.8 mph|
5. And because he is hitting more pop-ups than anybody in baseball …
Ramirez’s biggest problem is that he is getting pitches to hit and too often pulling them foul or popping them up. Pitchers actually are throwing him more fastballs this year.
|Before Aug. 18||82||14|
|After Aug. 18||44||1|
6. He regularly is pulling foul balls.
“A lot of them,” manager Terry Francona said. “And they have been way foul. [Friday] night he had one down the line and I told [bench coach] Brad Mills, ‘At least that one’s not that foul.’”
7. His mechanics have suffered.
“Sometimes you’ll see him drag his back foot when he swings,” Rodriguez said. “You have no base when you do that.”
Slumps hit everyone. Chris Davis had a massive one. Paul Goldschmidt has had one in each of the past two seasons in which a great hitter looks lost for four weeks at a time.
Some players, even great ones, fall off a cliff quickly: Roberto Alomar, Mattingly, Dale Murphy, maybe Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto. But age and injury often are obvious to blame.
But where are the precedents about someone who is healthy and 26 years old who lost the ability to hit for more than 100 games? Out of 19,000 players, surely it has happened to others, but none come to mind who finished in the top three of MVP voting twice.
The best comp to Ramirez I could summon was Terry Pendleton. The third baseman never was much of a hitter through age 29 with the St. Louis Cardinals. His career OPS+ then was 84. But at the ages of 30 and 31 in 1991 and 1992, upon signing with the Atlanta Braves, he posted OPS+ of 139 and 124, won a batting title, led the league in hits both years, and won one MVP award and finished second the next year.
The next year he slumped, and the year after that he was injured. After those two anomalous huge seasons, Pendleton went right back to an OPS+ of 83 for the rest of his career.
Ramirez, listed at 5'9'', 190 pounds, resembles Pendleton (5'9'', 178) in body type. Both play third base and both are switch hitters. But the comp falls apart when you consider age. Ramirez is six years younger than when Pendleton began to fall from his elite level.
Last week in Boston, Francona gave Ramirez a day off because he saw how heavily the slump was wearing on him. Ramirez has hit .205 since that one-day break. He did scratch two singles Sunday, but he does not have an extra-base hit this month. His monthly batting averages since Aug. 18 are .149, .174, .181, .245 and .138.
On Tuesday the Indians open a series against the Reds. For Ramirez, it will be, once again, the first day of the rest of his season.