Here’s a fun little game for you to play. Navigate your browser to the FanGraphs player leaderboards, and then click on the shortstops button. What you see will be automatically sorted in descending order by WAR, and here’s the current top five:
Fine talents, all of them, even if none of them blow you away with name value. Name value doesn’t win championships, and all these guys have been major contributors to their teams from a premium position. But you’ll notice that when you went to this page, the readout included only “Qualified” players. Go ahead and remove that constraint. Let the page re-load. Now there’s a new top five:
Suddenly, Tulowitzki and Ramirez appear, ranking first and third. Because of injury, Tulowitzki has played just 69 games. Also because of injury, Ramirez has played just 44 games. Yet, in that quarter of one season, Ramirez has been one of baseball’s very most valuable shortstops. You could say that, while Jean Segura has been juice, Hanley Ramirez has been juice concentrate. You could also say something better and smarter than that.
Yasiel Puig has gotten a lot of credit for the Dodgers’ team turnaround, and justifiably so. Though he seems to be slumping at the moment, he very much was not slumping before, and his OPS is still near four digits. But Hanley’s OPS climbed into four-digit territory in the middle of June and it’s only risen in July. The key to the Dodgers’ turnaround has been a bunch of guys, Puig and Ramirez included, Puig and Ramirez especially. Lots has been written about the former. Less has been written about the latter.
What makes Puig so interesting is how much we don’t know. We don’t know where he’s going to settle, so at the moment, his potential is limitless. In time, he’ll become less interesting as he becomes more known and more familiar. Ramirez isn’t as new to the league as Puig is — Ramirez has more than 4,500 major-league plate appearances — but this version of him is new. It’s new and it’s old. Hanley Ramirez is playing like a superstar, like he used to be.
What’s behind Ramirez suddenly getting better? There are any number of explanations. Ken Rosenthal suggests that Ramirez is just a new man in Los Angeles, after wasting away in Florida. One’s instinct is to ignore or downplay this explanation, but Ramirez is probably feeling a little more motivated, and motivation isn’t without its importance. More…believably, however, Ramirez himself has noted his 2011 shoulder surgery.
Hanley Ramirez said he felt more confident than he had in three years when he came off the disabled list at the end of April. Why?
“Because of this,” Ramirez said, gesturing to the three-inch scar on his left shoulder, a souvenir from September 2011 surgery. It took Ramirez that long — 18 months — to feel as if he was back to being himself following the surgery.
Ramirez also credited the Dodgers medical staff with helping him revive his career. Not only did Ramirez recover from a broken thumb and strained hamstring this year, he also gained strength in his surgically repaired left shoulder.
Then, the mileage started catching up to him. He dealt with lower-back pain. The accumulated damage to his left shoulder became so bad, doctors had to cut him open after the  season. He still has the scar.
It’s easy to buy into injury excuses, especially when offered in hindsight, but it’s easy because it’s understandable how injuries might contribute to a worse performance. It totally makes sense how Ramirez might not have been fully recovered yet in 2012. It totally makes sense how he might have suffered from accumulated aches and pains even before going under the knife. Then you add in the reality of his old playing situation, and there’s a reasonable story you can choose to believe.
But, all right, never mind the explanations. Explanations can be argued, and seldom proven. Something we do know about is statistics, and we have a pretty good sense of which hitter statistics should remain steady, and which are pretty volatile. Ramirez right now has a .400 BABIP and that’s silliness. He’s been hitting the ball hard, but that’s silliness. However, I’ll point you to:
2012: 20% strikeouts
2012: 47% grounders
Throughout baseball, 266 players have batted at least 150 times in both 2012 and 2013. Only 14 of them have reduced their strikeout rates by at least five percentage points, and only three have dropped more than Ramirez. Meanwhile, 48 players have reduced their groundball rates by at least five percentage points, and only 19 have dropped more than Ramirez. Only Ramirez and Jose Lobaton have had both reductions of at least five percentage points. Lobaton’s just a backup catcher with limited samples, but his wRC+ is up from 85 to 98.
And with Ramirez, this isn’t necessarily a new level. He became a groundball hitter in 2010, and previous to that, his batted balls had more air under them. He used to flirt with lower strikeout rates, though they would admittedly bounce around. In 2007, Ramirez struck out 14% of the time, and he hit 40% grounders. He finished with a 144 wRC+, 5.3 WAR, and a little MVP support. That year, he had a .230 isolated slugging percentage. So far this year, it’s .315. And the walks haven’t gone away, despite the reduced whiffs.
One obvious point is that Ramirez has had too many batted balls drop in for hits. Another obvious point is that he hasn’t even batted 200 times yet this season, and still another obvious point is that he’s been swinging aggressively and maybe that will get exploited. Ramirez isn’t going to keep slugging in the .700s, and then he presumably won’t keep slugging in the .600s either. He’ll come down, because this present level is extraordinary. Every single player who’s in the midst of an amazing season will probably be a little less amazing from that point forward. That’s the nature of extremes.
But, step back. Ramirez appears to be healthy now. He’s had his shoulder fixed, and he says it feels good, and the numbers back him up. He’s hitting fewer grounders and more hard shots in the air, and he’s also just hitting the ball more in general, striking out less often. Ramirez has always run a high BABIP, so putting the ball in play is a good thing for him. And one should look at a few of his home runs. Here’s a dinger:
Here’s another dinger. Here’s an incredible one. These are basically home runs and also line drives, evidence of bat speed and perfect contact. Using the ESPN Home Run Tracker, I looked at every home run hit so far this season that was launched at at least 112 miles per hour off the bat. Justin Upton and Mark Trumbo lead the way with five such dingers. Ramirez, Jay Bruce, and Albert Pujols are tied with four, and Ramirez has missed more than half his team’s games. This isn’t suddenly a new skill of Hanley’s, but he might now be able to do it more consistently. Which is all good hitting is. Bad hitters sometimes make good contact. Good hitters make it more often, and Ramirez is practically doing it every other plate appearance these days.
Hanley Ramirez is 29 years old, and there’s reason to believe he’s getting back to being the superstar he used to be, in the before times. What might explain his apparent career turnaround? It could be debated for months, and it also ultimately doesn’t really matter.
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