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Aggressive Alexei Ramirez

When the White Sox inked Cuban star Alexei Ramirez to a four-year, $4.75 million deal last offseason, the club anticipated that the wiry right-handed batter would hit the ground running. Though Cuban imports have historically been less of a known quantity, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system spit out a .298/.344/.459 projection for Ramirez, and scouts liked what they saw as well. In a “Scouts View” piece ran in September of 2007, Baseball America talked to a talent evaluator who ranked Ramirez’s hit tool and speed as 60 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale (20 being poorest, 50 being major league average and 80 being superhuman). With a thin 6-3, 185 pound frame and a similar swing, Ramirez was often compared with Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano.

In his first big league season, “The Cuban Missile” turned in a .290/.317/.475 line, posting a .336 wOBA that was very close to the AL average. On the positive side, the then-26 year-old (27 as of late September) ranked 5th among qualified second baseman with a .185 Isolated Power. Playing at U.S. Cellular Field certainly won’t hurt a righty trying to pull the ball: Ramirez showed no discernable home/away split in ’08, but The Cell has boosted HR production by 28 percent from 2006-2008, per The Bill James Handbook. Alexei also made frequent contact, striking out just 12.7% of the time.

While Ramirez did show some pop and put the bat on the ball, he was also among the least patient hitters in the league. Ramirez walked just 3.6% of the time. Among all qualified hitters, only Yuniesky Betancourt, A.J. Pierzynski and Bengie Molina drew a free pass less often. In terms of swinging at pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, Chicago’s new middle infielder ranked behind only Vladimir Guerrero among batters with at least 500 AB. While the Angels’ notorious bad-ball hitter paced the majors with a 45.5 Outside-Swing%, Ramirez was right on his tail with a 42.7% mark. Overall, Alexei swung at 59.9% of his total pitches seen, again ranking behind only Vlad (60.3%).

Pitchers soon became privy to Ramirez’s free-swinging tendencies, rarely offering him a fastball. In fact, he saw a heater less than any other batter in the game with at least 500 AB, with just 47% of his total pitches seen being fastballs. Rather than giving Ramirez’s quick wrists and bat control the opportunity to do damage, opposing hurlers fed him a steady diet of sliders (24.4%, 4th among all batters with 500 AB). Ramirez also saw the second-highest proportion of curveballs (12%) and the 20th-highest frequency of changeups (12.8%).

While Ramirez is certainly an interesting player with some power and contact skills, it’s difficult to say just how much of an asset he will become (overall, Alexei was worth just 1.1 Value Wins in ’08, as his league-average bat was coupled with poor fielding numbers: his -9.2 UZR/150 at 2B does not bode well for a transition to shortstop). Ramirez is already 27- not old by any means, but in the age range where “what you see is what you get”, and his less-than-discerning eye is troublesome.

There’s some method to Ramirez’s hacking madness, in that he does frequently put the bat on the ball, but such an approach could lead him prone to seeing an even steadier stream of curves and sliders. Such a trend becomes apparent when you look at Ramirez’s percentage of fastballs seen by month:

April: 51.9%
May: 52.8%
June: 49.7%
July: 47.7%
Aug.: 42.5%
Sept.: 43.9%

“The Cuban Missile” produced a decent rookie season, and perhaps one could argue that he’ll improve a little as he becomes more acclimated to the majors. However, his lack of restraint at the dish might keep him from becoming more than an exciting, frustrating, overall average player.