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Alexei Ramirez: Between the (Stat) Lines

On September 20, 2007, Cuban baseball star Alexei Ramirez announced to the world that he had defected from his home country to fulfill his dream of playing in the Major Leagues, and by Opening Day 2008 he was in the White Sox’ starting lineup. After a slow start to his career (only two HR and seven RBI through May), Ramirez erupted in June and burst onto the fantasy radar. From June through August, he batted .333 with 40 R, 13 HR, 53 RBI, and 8 SB in only 291 AB. While his AVG fell in September, batting only .211 that month, he still produced at those same rates.

It came as no surprise when Ramirez’s draft stock kept soaring before the 2009 season. He had emerged as more than just a viable player but a valuable commodity, providing much-needed depth at the top of an otherwise shallow position. Well, 2009 didn’t go as planned.

Despite playing in 12 more games and totaling 97 more plate appearances, Ramirez saw his HR and RBI numbers drop precipitously. His AVG fell 13 points to .277, he only scored 71 runs, and there was no improvement in his SB totals.

In spite of all that, 2009 was actually a success for Ramirez.

Even though he saw large per-game drops in every fantasy category, his peripherals actually indicate he spent most of last season maturing as a hitter. If Ramirez had a flaw during his surprise 2008, it was his lack of plate discipline. He walked just 18 times in 509 plate appearances (3.5%) and had a Batting Average/On-Base Differential (BOD) of only .027. By comparison, in 2009 he walked 49 times in 606 plate appearances (8.1%) and had a BOD of .056. Furthering this point, check out some of his specific swing percentages over the last two seasons:

Note: O- means pitches outside the strike zone and Z- means pitches inside the strike zone. F-Strike% is percent of PA with a first-pitch strike.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% F-Strike%
2008 42.7 76.2 59.9 69.8 87.6 81.4 67.5
2009 32.1 69.4 50.7 67.4 91 83.5 62.6

Most noticeable in the data is the steep drop in O-Swing%. This translated into a drop in first-pitch strikes, which obviously puts the batter in a better position to have a successful at bat. Interestingly, we also see a drop in his Z-Swing%, indicating that he was more selective on pitches in the strike zone. This resulted in an increase in his Z-Contact%. Even though the overall results weren’t there last season, Ramirez clearly had much better at bats.

So if the at bats were better, then why the drop in batting average?

First of all, let’s note that over the 542 AB Ramirez had in 2009, the difference between batting .290 and .277 is only seven hits. With his BABIP, K%, GB%, LD%, and FB% all nearly identical to 2008, how do we explain it?

The answer lies in his HR/FB rate. After posting a 13.8% HR/FB rate in 2008, Ramirez saw it drop to 8.2% in 2009. Had he maintained the 13.8% HR/FB rate last season, he would have finished with nine more HR. Some of those would-be HR were probably already hits, but the majority of them would have been fly outs. It looks to me like we just accounted for the difference in batting average.

So what accounted for the loss of pop? Probably just luck. Take a look at some of Ramirez’s HR data from 2008 and 2009, courtesy of Hittrackeronline.com:

Season No. HR Avg. True Distance Avg. Speed Off Bat
2008 21 382.8 101.1
2009 15 378.1 99.4

The Average True Distance and Average Speed Off Bat remained similar, so the drop in HR can probably be attributed to fly ball placement. Some things you just can’t control. Based on only two years of data, we can’t be sure whether 13.8% or 8.2% is more representative of Ramirez’s HR-hitting ability, so I am inclined to put his 2010 rate right in the middle. Even so, this makes him a 20 HR hitter.

So what’s the point of all this? Entering 2009, Ramirez had an ADP around 50. According to Couchmanagers.com, his 2010 ADP is 90.7, and in Mock Draft Central’s “Expert” Draft he went 100th overall. What I’m getting at is that despite the poor production on the surface, Ramirez took steps towards becoming a better hitter in 2009. With a little better luck and some more development, he will return to being a solid starting shortstop in any fantasy league. After Hanley, Tulowitzki, Jeter, and Rollins, Alexei Ramirez is the only remaining 20 HR, 15 SB shortstop in the league, and with an ADP in the 10th round, he might be one of this year’s best values.

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About the author: Bryan is the co-founder of Baseball Professor and works as a consultant specializing in operational metrics and efficiency analysis. When he’s not working, blogging, or tending to basic human needs, he enjoys pondering the vastness of the universe, rewatching episodes of Breaking Bad, and avoiding snakes. (@BaseballProf)

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