Ramirez Leading the Way in Tribe’s Charge to Top of Division
Bob Toth | On 28, Jul 2019
With Saturday’s 9-1 win over the Kansas City Royals, the Cleveland Indians rattled off their fourth straight win and guaranteed a series win over the fourth place club in the American League Central Division. But more importantly, they pulled within one game of the Minnesota Twins.
How have the Indians done it? A healthy 17-4 record in July hasn’t hurt, nor did a 17-9 mark in June. Since play resumed after Cleveland hosted the 90th annual Midsummer Classic several weeks ago, the Indians have lost a grand total of four contests. Since claiming the finale of the second half opening series against Minnesota, the Indians are 12-2, losing those two contests by one run each.
The Indians were as many as eleven and a half games back on June 2 and have not held the lead in the division since April 26. Minnesota has gone 10-11 in July after a 15-12 June.
One of the bigger reasons for the Tribe’s surge in the standings has been the return of Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez was not gone, but his impressive production of the last few years had been lacking since late in the 2018 season, when it appeared as those the secret to retiring Ramirez had been discovered by teams around the country. The 26-year-old switch-hitting extra base machine got off to a dreadful start in 2019, hitting just .181 with a .281 on-base percentage over his first 28 games with four doubles, two homers, and nine RBI through the end of April. A 28-game May led to a mild improvement – he posted a .245/.353/.373 slash with seven doubles, two homers, and eight RBI.
While the May numbers gave some hope that he was gradually emerging from a four-month long slump, he dipped badly again in June – in 24 games, he hit .216 with a .290 OBP and .330 slugging mark with three doubles, two triples, one homer, and 13 RBI.
July has been a different story for the former two-time top-three American League Most Valuable Player finisher. After a 2-for-5 day at the plate on Saturday, including a homer for the third straight game, he has pushed his July batting line to .348/.368/.719 (a 1.088 OPS). With nine doubles and eight homers for the month (21 games), he is just four extra base hits short of matching his entire extra base hit production over the first three months of the season (80 games), with three more games left in the month to play.
The hitting tear at the plate has taken Ramirez’s season batting average from .214 on June 30 to .245 prior to play on July 28. Ramirez has hit safely in four straight games – all multi-hit efforts – and has two hits or more in six of his last seven games.
There have been some trends within Ramirez’s overall season numbers that may have led to some of his issues in the batter’s box. His launch angle is at a career-high mark of 20.7 degrees, nearly two more than last year and almost six above 2017’s mark. His hard-hit percentage and home run percentage are at their lowest marks since the 2016 season, his strikeout percentage is at its worst since 2014, and he has carried an above MLB average percentage of fly balls popped up in the infield. He has grounded into eight double plays this year (after hitting into just two last season), despite not showing any declines in speed in regards to his stolen base efforts.
Some of these issues could easily be exasperated by pressing, while others could be a reflection of a different lineup construction and his own position within the batting order this season after the significant offseason removals of Michael Brantley via free agency and Edwin Encarnacion via trade. With fewer perceived threats in the starting nine, Ramirez may have seen different pitches than a year ago, when there was more protection in the lineup with a more feared overall offensive threat presented by the Indians.
Taking a deeper look at the pitch selection that Ramirez has been offered in his career, there has been a notable change in the figures in 2018 and 2019 as compared to the first five years of his career. Early in his career, he saw a larger diet of fastballs. That percentage has dropped significantly, while slider use has jumped. Entering play on Saturday, Ramirez was hitting just .201 on fastballs this season while seeing them somewhat less frequently, but was hitting .348 against the slider (after batting .164 off of the pitch last year in a career-worst effort). The changeup, however, has been an Achilles heel for Ramirez and has been used more frequently over the last few years, as he has just one extra base hit against the off-speed pitch and a .197 average through his first 100 games of 2019. He hit .391 against it in 2017 and .295 off of it a year ago.
In addition to those things, how much weight on Ramirez’s shoulders was lifted at the end of June, when his girlfriend gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Isabella (on June 27). Ramirez has only been out of action three times this season, with two of those games coming while he was on the paternity list. Since the new bundle of joy in Ramirez’s world, he has been a new man on the diamond.
Ramirez’s home run on Saturday was the 100th of his Major League career, making him the 27th player in franchise history to reach the century mark and just the fourth player (Joe Carter, Grady Sizemore, and Jason Kipnis) to record 100 homers and 100 stolen bases during their Indians tenure.
Is it safe to say that Jose Ramirez is back for good? Baseball is a fickle sport and slumps can happen in the blink of an eye. But on the encouraging side, Ramirez is in his hottest stretch of play at the plate of the season and he has done it consistently for over a month and a half. While Ramirez hit just .216 in June, his numbers were dragged down by a rough start to the month, when he tallied just four singles over 39 plate appearances (.111 average with a .154 OBP) in the first ten games from June 1 to June 12 (when his average sat below the Mendoza line for the last time this season at .198). After that period, he hit in six straight and eleven of 12 over June’s final 14 games (.288 average, .377 OBP) to give him a .214 average and .309 OBP at month’s end.
It is no surprise that the Tribe’s poor early record and significant hole to climb out of in the American League Central came with Ramirez providing far less to the lineup than he had in the past. The Tribe’s surprising rise back to the top of the division is undoubtedly related to the success that Ramirez has found at the plate. Cleveland’s hunt for baseball in October will be positively or negatively linked to what Ramirez can do with the bat over the final two months of the regular season schedule, but those invested in the ball club can be very encouraged by what JRam has done for an extended stretch of play now.
Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images