It’s the bottom of the ninth. The tying run is on second. There’s two outs. Who do you want to come to the plate for the Indians?
Would you choose All-Star Francisco Lindor? How about Jason Kipnis, a star in his own right? Or maybe you’d pick slugger Carlos Santana. Or even Mike Napoli, because he knows how to party. Perhaps you would choose Jose Ramirez, the Tribe’s biggest surprise in 2016.
Though none of the other players are bad choices, I would be most comfortable with Ramirez batting with the game on the line. Why? Because he’s been one of the best in the game with runners in scoring position this year, and it’s a big part of his overall success.
Just take this past series against Toronto as a recent example of his clutch hitting. With his one-out home run in the ninth on Friday night, Ramirez set the stage for Tyler Naquin’s dramatic last at bat walk-off. On Sunday afternoon, he crushed a go-ahead two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. And even on Saturday, even though he didn’t do anything dramatic, Ramirez still singled in a run with runners on the corners in the fourth.
And that’s just Ramirez’s recent streak. The whole year he’s been coming through in the clutch for the Tribe. With men on base, Ramirez is hitting .353 (fifth-best in the league) with an on-base percentage of .394. When those runners move into scoring position, his average goes up to .381, third highest in the AL. Of his 114 plate appearances, he’s gotten on base in 42.7% while driving in 45. When you add two outs to that, he’s even better, hitting .407 with 25 RBI in 54 at bats.
It’s not just with men on base either. Ramirez performs equally well in the game’s later innings. In high leverage situations, according to Baseball Reference, he’s posted a .388/.432/.550 slash line with two home runs and only eleven strikeouts in 80 at bats. Seven of his ten homers have come in the seventh inning or later.
Even the advanced metrics say Ramirez comes through when it matters most. He leads the Tribe, and is ninth in the AL, in FanGraphs’ Clutch metric, which is designed to measure “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” Furthermore, he’s fourth in the AL in win probability added, trailing only David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Trout.
This is normally the part of the article that details just how unsustainable his success with runners in scoring position is. How Ramirez has been more lucky than good. How his .433 BABIP with runners in scoring position is ridiculously high, especially considering how softly he hits the ball (sixth-lowest average exit velocity with RISP). However, there is evidence that he can maintain this success for the rest of the season. Consider this. In nine of the past ten years and 13 of the last 15, at least one player in the AL has finished with a BABIP with runners in scoring position of at least .400. And overall, Ramirez has a high BABIP (.333), so it’s certainly possible for him to remain on fire with runners on.
Even if Ramirez does regress a little bit, it won’t take away much from his overall numbers. He’s been one of the main cogs of the Tribe’s offense that is second in the league in runs per game. Ramirez has hit .310/.365/.461 with ten homers, 69 runs scored, 57 RBI, and 20 steals. Before the season started, no one expected him to replace Michael Brantley’s production. But he’s done exactly that. FanGraphs ZiPS projections expected Brantley to hit .301/.364/.454, with 14 homers, 73 runs scored, 84 RBI, and 17 steals in 144 games. (h/t to August Fagerstrom for the Brantley comp)
Ramirez is hitting the ball on the ground a lot less and it’s one of the reasons he’s done so well this year. According to data from Statcast, the Tribe’s everyday third baseman has raised his average launch angle two degrees from 2015 to 2016. Correspondingly, his groundball rate has dropped from 48% to 40% while his line drive rate has increased from 16% to 25%. Along with consistent playing time, the line drive increase has been a key for Ramirez.
Heading into the stretch run, the Tribe is going to need reliable production from all of their starters in order to maintain their division lead. And when they need a key hit late in the game, they’ll be sure to call on Captain Clutch. Ramirez will certainly deliver.
Photo: AP Photo/David Dermer