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The Cuban Connection and Other Great Chases: Alexei Ramirez Edition

Everyone remembers the great car chase scene from The French Connection, right? It’s basically Gene Hackman chasing a hitman in New York City. Except the hitman is on an elevated-train while Hackman is in a car below him. Hackman has to avoid a woman and her baby, oncoming traffic as well as plenty of other obstacles.

Alexei Ramirez faced his share of obstacles this season, not the least of which involved him chasing out of the zone. After posting an average .326 wOBA for his four season career, Ramirez saw his offensive game take a steep dive in 2012: he posted a .282 wOBA — ranking dead last among qualified shortstops. Despite this poor showing in the advanced side of the numbers, his fantasy tallies were sufficient to rank him as the 15th best shortstop.

The mediocre 2012 season was due to it being marked with several career lows and a career high for the Chicago White Sox shortstop. All told, he posted his lowest number of home runs, runs scored, and his lowest batting average all in this past season. Perhaps the sole bright spot is that he did steal 20 bases — a single season high.

To find the root of his issues, something so superficially simple as BABIP won’t suffice here. For his career, Alexei holds a .292 BABIP; this past season he had a .290 BABIP. His batted ball rates didn’t appreciably change either. He hit fewer fly balls — and consequently slight more ground balls — but not enough to tip the scales horrifically. His IFFB% in 2012 was actually lower than his career average, so it wasn’t like he was popping everything up for easy outs either. No, this was a simple case of swinging at the wrong pitches at the wrong times.

Plate discipline has never been one of Ramirez’s strong suits; he has a rather dismal 5.3 BB% for his career. That being said, he actually strikes out less than league average, only about 12% of the time for both his career and this past year. When observing his triple slash from this year against his career, it is clear to see that the lack of walks is what drove Ramirez’s overall value down. In standard 5×5 walks only help if the player steals or scores a run, and as stated before, Alexei certainly ran, he just was on often enough to get driven in. Of course being driven in is a product of the lineup around him and being stuck hitting seventh or eighth most of the season certainly didn’t help his chances there. That aside, he didn’t draw the walks to get on-base for those all too few hits behind him to drive him in anyways.

From 2011 to 2012 we saw Ramirez’s OBP drop an astounding 40 points. After drawing 51 walks in 2011, that number cratered down to a pathetic 16 in 2012. That’s right: in 621 plate appearances, Ramirez drew all of 16 unintentional walks. The curious part is that his SwStr% was actually below his career average this season and his strikeout rate was a mere .3% higher than his average. He even tied for the best Contact% of his career, an above league average mark of 85.0%. He didn’t strikeout more, he simply walked less.

What pushed his poor walk rates down into the basement? Looking at his swing rates, it seems to be a variety of factors. The first thing I noticed was his huge jump in O-Swing%. Again, he has always been a bit of a hacker — never once posting a league average O-Swing% — but this season it jumped to the fifth worst in all of baseball. The only four players that swung outside of the zone more were (in order from the top) Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jeff Francoeur…not exactly ideal company when discussing plate discipline. Another issue was that he consistently started behind in the count, either due to chasing or perhaps good pitches. At the end of the season he found himself tied for 15th for the highest (read: 15th worst) F-Strike% in baseball at 63.0%, a full 4% above the league average.

Forgive me for wandering away from the raw data for a moment here because I feel like I’ve stumbled upon another part of Alexei’s struggles. I think pitchers stopped being afraid of him. I don’t mean in the sense that they could throw meatball after meatball up there, but as a pitcher, imagine knowing that you have almost a two-out-of-three chance of starting off every plate appearance up 0-1. That wouldn’t change your mindset as a pitcher? I could be over thinking things, or this could just be simple post hoc logic at work, but consider this: As of July 1, Alexei had but two home runs on the season with just 14 extra-base hits overall. If you aren’t worried about getting taken deep, you can groove the occasional fastball for a strike without much worry. Ramirez posted the worst wFB in baseball, -17.7. Normally I’m not much for pitch type linear weights (as I think there are seriously doubts due to pitch sequencing and other factors) but that steep of a negative mark certainly caught my eye.

Then again, it might be as simple as watching Alexei flail and chase against right-handed pitchers. He’s always shown a platoon split, but a 65 wRC+ against fellow righties speaks volumes for his troubles against like-handed pitchers in 2012. For his career there is a 25 point gap in wRC+ between his platoon numbers. Overall, this was a season of a season of disappointing power and runs while simultaneously providing a pleasant dose of speed and the occasional RBI. His power fell off of a cliff, but his speed picked up a notch. He makes for an intriguing player at a thin position come next year’s draft.