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Cuban Missile Identity Crisis

Who is Alexei Ramirez? Well, he’s the starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox who hails from Cuba. But who is he really as a baseball player? No, this isn’t a predictable comment about the birth certificates of Cuban players. Rather, it’s about the striking contrast between his only two seasons of playing baseball full-time in the MLB. (He did not play in the minor leagues.)

Many players have widely varying performances from season to season. Ramirez’s jump in Wins Above Replacement from 1.0 WAR in 2008 to 2.2 WAR in 2009 isn’t all that shocking; it happens all the time. Breaking it down into offense and defense doesn’t surprise either, on the surface. Dropping from a .336 to a .319 wOBA isn’t unusual, and I think we all know enough about the year-to-year variation and the error bars surrounding defensive metrics that a -10.6 to +2.3 in fielding isn’t all that unbelievable, either. It isn’t necessary to postulate a shift in true talent — there have been far more bizarre cases of observed performance jumping around from season to season. In Ramirez’s case, it’s the closer look that makes things surprising.

Let’s begin with fielding. As mentioned above, year-to-year correlation of fielding performance is fairly weak compared to overall offensive statistics, so while -10.6 to +2.3 is big, it’s not as if it is unprecedented. What makes it more surprising is the circumstance in which is occurred. In 2008, the bulk of Ramirez’ time in the field was spent at second base, where his “rate” stat was -10.6 runs below average UZR/150 (which coincidentally matches his overall fielding “counting” version of UZR for 2008). In 2009, Ramirez moved to shortstop. Shortstop is more difficult to field than second, so even after regressing the 2008 performance, you’d have a hard time expecting him to be good at shortstop in 2009. Well, Ramirez put up a +2.4 UZR/150 at short in 2009.

The Fans Scouting Report is a good resource for helping sort these things out. But if we look at Ramirez’s 2009 rating among second basemen, hardcore fans saw him as a second baseman on par with defensive standouts like Placido Polanco and Dustin Pedroia. Maybe that meant he was ready to make the shift to the more challenging position for 2009, despite UZR. Sounds promising, except in the (currently unweighted) 2009 Fan ratings for shortstops, Alexei is ranked among the likes of Ronny Cedeno, Julio Lugo, and Nick Green, none of whom are going to be mistaken for Adam Everett. What is going on here?

That’s fielding, with all its usual caveats. What about offense? A .336 to .319 wOBA (+1.2 to -7.1 Batting Runs against Average) is, again, not shocking. But the peripherals tell a strange story. One typical explanation — changed luck on balls in play — doesn’t stand out, as Ramirez’s BABIP and batted ball profile were roughly the same in both seasons. While assessments Ramirez’s modest success in 2008 tended to be qualified by concerns about his plate discipline, he actually improved his peripheral performance in that area. In 2008, he had a measly 3.5% walk rate, which reflects his near 60% of pitches swung at (league average is usually around 45%), including swinging at an incredible 43.7% of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). In 2009, his walk rate increased dramatically to a near-league average 8.1%, while his Swing% was a more reasonable 50.7% and his O-Swing%, while not great, was much improved from to 32.1%.

Make no mistake, Ramirez’s actual offensive contribution was far superior in 2008 — mostly due to hitting for a slightly better average (.290 vs. .277) and much better power (.185 vs. .113 ISO), the latter probably due to a superior HR/FB rate (13.8% vs. 8.2%). Still, he was even better at stealing bases in 2009 (14 out of 19 safe) than in 2008 (13 out of 21). It appears as if Ramirez became much “smarter” both at the plate and on the bases in 2009, and it got him… much less.

I’m not drawing any conclusions. I was simply struck by the various changes with opposite results from what one would expect. This is not to say that this makes Ramirez “hard to project.” For all the variations between projection systems, the core of all good systems is still regressing components, adjusting for age and context, and weighting them properly. Ramirez’s true talent is probably somewhere between his 2008 and 2009 performances. But that doesn’t make his 2010 performance any less intriguing to watch.