Revisiting the first half of the Cleveland Indians’ 2019 season isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.
A sputtering offense, Eric Stamets subbing in for the injured Francisco Lindor, falling behind the Minnesota Twins by double digits in the standings. It’s a whole lot of memories Tribe fans are eager to forget.
Topping the list of Cleveland’s 2019 first half tragedies was the epic slump from Jose Ramirez. The Indians’ third baseman went ice cold at the plate to start last season, and it played a major role in the team’s overall struggles.
It’s also an occurrence the Indians can’t afford to have happen again in 2020.
Obviously, the Tribe stumbling out of the gate last season isn’t entirely Ramirez’s fault. Still, when looking at all the drop-offs he experienced from 2018, it’s difficult ignore how much of an impact his funk had on the team.
Year-over-year, Ramirez’s WAR fell from 8.0 to 3.3. After coming off two consecutive years with a wRC+ at 146, said stat sunk to 104 last season. Ramirez’s wRAA also plummeted from 43.7 to a whopping 6.8.
His strikeout rate was a career high 13.7%, his walk rate decreased by 37% and his OPS fell by over 100 points.
Where Ramirez’s slump caused the most damage for Cleveland was with men on base. Below is a look at how his walk rate, strikeout rate and wRC+ fared in this situation both last year and in the season before.
2018 – 15.6%, 9.2%, 152
2019 – 9.4%, 15.3%, 101
As you can see, this is a ton of production to remove from your offense, especially from someone who batted fifth in 66% of his 2019 plate appearances.
To be fair, most of Ramirez’s year-over-year declines were the result of his miserable offensive showing in the first half of the year. During that time, Ramirez slashed at .218/.308/.344, with a wRC+ of 68 and a wRAA of -12.0.
Still, these struggles were particularly damaging for the Indians. By the end of May, they were below .500, averaging just four runs per game and facing a sizable standings gap between themselves and Minnesota.
Ramirez enduring a similarly shaky start simply can’t happen again in 2020. The Indians will be spending the year slugging it out with both the reigning division champion Twins and the suddenly imposing Chicago White Sox. There just won’t be much room for error in the season ahead.
With that in mind, it forces you to ask just what it was that had Ramirez looking frigid at the plate? What was it that caused one of Cleveland’s most consistent hitters to suddenly look so helpless offensively?
The issue, it seems, was Ramirez’s sudden inability to deal with defensive shifts.
At first glance, this was a bit surprising. After all, Ramirez’s career slash line when facing a normally positioned defense (.292/.290/.394) isn’t much different than when facing a shift (.283/.277/.394).
However, things notably changed in 2018. Suddenly, Ramirez just wasn’t very effective when opposing defenses switched things up on him, slashing notably worse against shifts that year compared to the previous season.
2017 – .368/.357/.579
2018 – .233/.228/.332
Opposing teams caught on to this, drastically changing the way they approached him at the plate last season.
For example, in 2018, 49% of the pitches Ramirez faced came with no shift whatsoever. In 2019, that number dropped to 34%.
Likewise, not only did opponents shift more against Ramirez, they also became more aggressive once the shift was made. Of the pitches he faced in 2018 against the shift, 61% were strikes. The following season, the amount of strikes thrown at Ramirez in this situation jumped to 65%.
Essentially, opposing clubs assumed Ramirez’s 2018 struggles with the shift would linger, and for a while, they were right.
The one positive is it’s clear what the issue was for Ramirez, and his midseason surge certainly indicates he figured it out.
Ramirez slashed .327/.365/.739 during the back half of the year, boosting his wRC+ from 68 to 176. During that time, Cleveland was 17 games above .500 and averaging 5.21 runs per game.
Whatever lesson Ramirez learned in July, the hope is it was a permanent one. Cleveland can’t afford to have one of its best hitters shifted out of the offense on a nightly basis in 2020.
After all, with a far more competitive division on the horizon, another frosty first half from Ramirez could put the Indians in a hole they can’t dig out of.