José Ramírez Is on Quite a Run

matt olson isn’t the only recent recipient of a contract extension who’s off to a ridiculously hot start. The Guardians’ Jose Ramirez is putting up even more eye-opening numbers than Olson, and he added to those with a grand slam and an RBI double against the White Sox during a Wednesday doubleheader, driving his season total to 20 — in 11 games!

I generally don’t care about RBI totals much, particularly since I’m more than a decade removed from my days of playing fantasy baseball. You might not care much about them, either, having grown to appreciate the modern-day cornucopia of statistics that do a better job of measuring batter skill. But hey, we’re just two weeks into the season, and with none of the stats under discussion having stabilized, it’s a good time just to appreciate extremes of performance while connecting them to more solid truths. Ramírez’s incredible hot streak provides us a good opportunity to appreciate the player before us (and I promise you, I won’t spend the entire piece rambling about ribbies).

And so here we are. In Wednesday’s opener, the Guardians piled 10 runs on White Sox starter Dallas Keuchel, one in the first and then nine in the second, during which the Chicago lefty failed to withdraw any of the 11 batters he faced. A pair of errors by shortstop Tim Anderson didn’t help, and neither did manager Tony LaRussa‘s apparent desire to go to avoid his bullpen so early. Ramírez, the sixth batter of the inning, unloaded on a center-cut cutter that turned a 3–0 game into a 7–0 one:

Man, that ball got outta here in a hurry, which will happen when you hit one with an exit velocity of 111.6 mph. It was Ramírez’s fourth homer of the season, and his second grand slam; he hit his first one off the Reds’ Daniel Duarte in the ninth inning of an April 12 game, that while batting left-handed:

Beyond the slam, Ramírez didn’t get another hit in the first game, an 11–1 round. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI double and a walk in the nightcap, a 2–1 win by Cleveland.

Twenty RBIs in a team’s first 11 games is not a record, but it put Ramírez in a seven-way tie for second with some notable company:

Most RBIs in a Team’s First 11 Games

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

* = Hall of Famer

That’s five Hall of Famers plus an obscure journeyman, a group that includes Gehrig in the year in which he set a short-lived season record for RBIs, with 173; Hack Wilson drove in 191 just three years later, and Gehrig himself would set the still-standing AL record with 185 in 1931. Of the 14 players tied with 19 RBIs, six of those are Hall of Famers as well, namely Jimmie Foxx (1940), Al Simmons (1929), Reggie Jackson (1974), Edgar Martinez (2000), Brooks-Robinson (1966), and ted williams (1950), with Scott Rolen (2004) heading in that direction. Aside from Alyea — who after 1970 would drive in just 18 more runs — these were mostly elite hitters on a tear at a time that their teammates were getting on base.

In case you’re wondering, Ramírez fleetingly held a share of the record through his team’s first 10 games — in other words, after Wednesday’s opener — tied with Manny, Chris Davis (2013), John Buck (also 2013) and Gehrig at 19, but he fell behind by picking up only one RBI in the nightcap. As for the record over any 11-game span, Ramírez doesn’t even chart. Three players are tied with 29 (!): Mel Ott (1929), Foxx (1933, in two overlapping streaks), and Davis (2012–13), with the last hitting 11 homers in that span.

Big RBI totals don’t happen without the help of one’s teammates, and in Ramírez’s case, the Guardians have scored a major league-high 5.64 runs per game. Ramírez has hit third in every game, batting behind two players getting on base at unsustainable clips in Myles Straw (.318/.434/.409, 160 wRC+) and Steven Kuwan (.387/.524/.548, 222 wRC+). Even so, his 28 PA with men on base is merely tied for 14th in the majors, and likewise with his 17 PA with men in scoring position is tied for 10th. He leads the majors in RBIs because he’s come through the most often in those opportunities, going 11-for-23 with two walks, a sacrifice fly, and a 1.217 SLG with men on base, and 8-for-13 with two walks, the sac fly, and a 1,615 SLG with runners in scoring position; nobody has more hits in either context.

Ramírez’s overall .429/.479/.881 slash line is similarly unreal. His batting average and 295 wRC+ lead the majors, and his slugging percentage and 1.1 WAR both lead the AL. Meanwhile, his on-base percentage of him is second in the league behind Kwan, and his four homers are tied for second, trailing only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who has five). What’s more, he’s struck out only twice in his 48 plate appearances, which is tied with the Mariners’ J. P. Crawford for the majors’ second-lowest strikeout rate behind the Royals’ Nicki Lopez (3.0% in 33 PA). Even for a player who had the majors’ 11th-lowest strikeout rate last year (13.7%), that’s impressive.

On Wednesday, I noted Olson’s power-contact combination, specifically that last year he was one of 13 players to combine a slugging percentage of at least .500 with a strikeout rate of 20% or lower. Ramírez not only did that last year — with the lowest strikeout rate among the group — but also has done it four times in the last six years, tied with Nolan Arenado and Mookie Betts for the majors’ second-highest total behind only Freddie Freeman. Here’s last year’s baker’s dozen, again:

Players with Slugging Percentages ≥.500 and Strikeout Rates ≤ 20% in 2021

In connection with this year’s ridiculously low strikeout rate, Ramírez has just a 4.2% swinging-strike rate, which can’t match Kwan’s 0.5% but is the sixth-lowest among qualifiers. Cleveland has been especially good in this area, as Amed Rosario (4.3%) and Straw (4.4%) are also in among the 10 lowest. Rosario has hit for just a 67 wRC+, but the other two have been very productive, as noted above. Cleveland’s 8.9% swinging-strike rate is the majors’ lowest, which doesn’t guarantee success — the second-lowest team, the Pirates, is scoring just 3.75 runs per game — but is probably worth keeping an eye on.

While Ramírez’s 89.4 mph average exit velocity and 41.5% hard-hit rate aren’t particularly notable either in their own right or relative to last season, this year’s 17.1% barrel rate is nearly three times his career rate (6.5%) and six points above last year’s previous career high. Combine that with his contact-centric approach (which includes only an 8.2% walk rate), and you have a player who’s right near the top of Statcast’s alternate barrels leaderboard, barrel rate per plate appearance (instead of per batted ball event):

Barrels Per Plate Appearance, 2022

rk. player Team BBE EV Hard-Hit% BRL/BBE % BRL/PA %
one Giancarlo Stanton NYY 30 97.1 50.0 26.7 16.3
two Jose Ramirez CLE 41 89.4 41.5 17.1 14.6
3 Aaron Judge NYY 30 93.6 56.7 23.3 14.0
4 Marcell Ozuna ATL 48 93.4 60.4 16.7 13.8
5 CJ Cron CABBAGE 36 90.8 52.8 19.4 13.5
6 Jeremy Pena HOU 30 93.2 50.0 20.0 13.3
7 Eugene Suarez BE 26 85.0 26.9 23.1 13.3
8 seiya suzuki CHC twenty-one 93.3 47.6 28.6 13.0
9 Peter Alonso NYM 39 89.3 46.2 17.9 12.3
10 Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 29 92.0 48.3 20.7 12.2

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Just to be clear, that’s a 5-foot-9 player standing tall while flanked by the 6-foot-6 Stanton and 6-foot-7 Judge.

For as hard as he’s hitting the ball right now, Ramírez has had similar stretches. Statcast doesn’t track barrel rates on a rolling basis the way it does exit velocity or hard-hit rate, but expected slugging percentage seems like a decent proxy, since the definition of a barreled ball is a combination of exit velo and launch angle that leads to a minimum xAVG of .500 and xSLG of 1,500. Ramírez, who has a .750 xSLG this year, has a .725 mark over his last 50 PA:

He’s had a few hotter stretches in that regard, one early last year (.768 xSLG as of April 30), one in late 2020 (.809 xSLG as of September 24), and one in late ’17 (.830 xSLG as of September 20). Not coincidentally, both of those were part of seasons in which he ranked among the game’s heavyweights in terms of wRC+ and WAR.

Since the question is inevitable (it comes up in my chats with some frequency, at least): yes, the 29-year-old third baseman is building himself a case for Cooperstown, particularly with three seasons of at least 6.7 bWAR. Even so, Ramírez’s 35.2 / 33.1 / 34.1 career / peak / JAWS line leaves a lot of work to be done, which is hardly atypical at his age, but he’ll need to continue playing at an All-Star level. Within his peak score from him, he has low-hanging fruit in the form of seasons of 3.1, 2.5, and 1.5 WAR. With, say, a trio of five-win seasons (including this one) over the next three years — which is more or less in line with the ZiPS projection Dan Szymborski ran on the occasion of his five-year, $124 million extension — he’d boost that to 49.4/41.0/45.2. Add the remaining 11.8 WAR for which he’s projected through the end of the deal (2028, his age-35 season), and that’s 61.2/41.0/51.1, which would currently rank 18th among third basemen but is still shy of the standards (68.4 /43.0/55.7) and competing for attention with current contemporaries Evan Longoria (57.5/41.9/49.7), Josh Donaldson (44.4/41.7/43.1), Sandblasted (45.4/40.3/42.9), and Manny Machado (46.7/38.8/42.8), all of whom figure to continue building their own cases.

None of those other third basemen is coming off as strong a season as Ramírez, though, and none of them is off to as hot a start in 2022, or projects to be a top-three player this year. He wo n’t sustain his extreme numbers from him, but Ramírez is playing at or close to his peak from him right now, and that’s worth appreciating.

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