If you asked the casual fan who was leading the Cleveland Indians team in WAR, they might ﬁrst suggest the young, slick-fielding shortstop Francisco Lindor who dazzled on the national stage last year. Then they might suggest Corey Kluber, a true ace who—after a slow April— has been lights out, putting up his fourth straight dominant season. Then the fan might remember that Edwin Encarnacion—signed as a free agent in the oﬀseason— is known for routinely crushing baseballs. All of these are good guesses, but the real leader in WAR for the Indians this year is none other than Jose Ramirez. He also leads all qualiﬁed hitters on his team in batting average, slugging percentage, and weighted runs created (wRC+). For reference, Ramirez’s 3.8 WAR places him in a tie for 11th in baseball with George Springer, ahead of established superstars like Corey Seager, Joey Votto, Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey, Kris Bryant, and Nolan Arenado. The numbers Ramirez has put up this year place him squarely in the most elite group of players. Even after being named the starter at third base for the AL All-Star team, Ramirez’s star still seems to shine less brightly than some of his more well-known counterparts. Despite this, he absolutely deserves to be mentioned in this elite company, and here’s why.
First, consider Ramirez’s approach at the plate. In previous years, he has done well to keep his strikeouts low, albeit with a mediocre walk rate. This year, Ramirez has employed a similar approach, but with one big change: he has been swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone (24.9% O-Swing%, down from 27.7% in 2016). This has allowed him to receive more free passes, giving him a nice bump in his OBP.
The biggest change in Ramirez’s game, however, has come with his slugging. He has exploded for 17 home runs so far, eclipsing his previous career high of 11 in 241 fewer plate appearances. He’s done this by making a few key changes. He has upped his hard contact rate nearly 8 percentage points (26.8% in 2016 to 34.9%) and joined baseball’s ﬂy-ball revolution. His launch angle has climbed to 15.27 degrees from 13.4 degrees in 2016, and that combined with an average exit velocity on line drives and ﬂy balls of 92.2 mph (up from 90.3 mph in 2016) can account for the uptick in power production.
Detractors will point to Ramirez’s 14.8% HR/FB rate as evidence that this power outbreak is unsustainable, and they may be right. However, Ramirez also has begun to pull the ball more, allowing him to make the most of his power. He has become a more eﬃcient power hitter, so while he may not hit 17 homers in the second half of the season, he shouldn’t revert back to a merely average power hitter as he was in years past.
Ramirez’s breakout this year should earn him much more than just an all-star appearance. With a .286 batting average and .885 OPS with runners in scoring position, he is getting the job done when his team needs him to. His clutch performance and emergence as the leader of a potent Cleveland oﬀense should garner him MVP votes at the very least.
All stats current as of July 18th