With playoff baseball right around the corner, cleveland.com is taking a look at the biggest issues facing Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians. As the 2018 regular season winds down, the answers to these questions will reveal whether or not the Tribe is Ready for October.
KANSAS CITY – An aerial view of Jose Ramirez’s season is breathtaking.
He’s done the Triple 100 – 100 runs (108), 100 RBI (105) and 100 walks (106). He’s hit 38 home runs and stolen 34 bases to become just the third player in team history to do 30-30 in one season.
“There are guys who go their whole careers and not have a season where they score 100 runs or drive in 100 runs or walk 100 times,” said Ty Van Burkleo, Indians hitting coach. “He’s done all three in one season. That’s pretty impressive.”
But at this moment, with the Indians set for a date with the Houston Astros in the best-of-five ALDS on Friday at Minute Maid Park, Jose Ramirez watchers inside and outside the organization are concerned. As great a season as he’s had, Ramirez is reeling in the midst of a six-week slump that shows no sign of stopping.
The two-time starting third baseman for AL All-Star team is hitting .161 (22-for-137) since Aug. 14. His power has vanished – seven doubles, one triple and two homers during the slide – and his average has dropped from .305 to .270.
“Guys will go into slumps,” said Van Burkleo. “He’s a good hitter. Sometimes you get pitched to so carefully that you lose that conviction, that aggressiveness. You get a little passive.”
Have opposing pitchers found a way to stop Ramirez simply by not pitching to him? Ramirez has walked 49 times, tying him with New York’s Aaron Hicks, for the most in the AL since the All-Star break. Overall, his 106 walks rank second in the league next to Mike Trout’s 122.
Ramirez went into the break hitting .302 (107-for-371) with 26 doubles, 29 homers, 70 RBI and a 1.029 OPS. With just two games left in the regular season, he’s hitting .217 (46-for-212) with 12 doubles, nine homers, 35 RBI and a .789 OPS since then.
“No one is pitching him in at all,” said Van Burkleo. “Everything is soft away, soft away. But he’s such a good hitter. On Thursday night he’s 3-0 and gets a fastball up, a little bit off the plate. He’s able to drive it far enough for a sacrifice fly and get the job done.”
The sacrifice fly came in the first inning and was the Indians’ only run in a 2-1 loss to the Royals in 10 innings. In Saturday night’s 14-6 win, Ramirez went 0-for-4 with a run and a walk.
“When (reporters) say Josie is struggling, he’s struggling to get hits,” said shortstop Francisco Lindor. “But he keeps getting walks. He walks almost every game and he has good at-bats. It’s just when he hits the ball, they’re not (falling). So, he’s getting on base. He’s still scoring runs.
“It’s a slump, but it’s a slump of hits – not a slump of helping the team win. He’s helping the team win on a daily basis. He gets two walks or he gets one walk and then he steals a base and scores.”
But there is more at work in Ramirez’s slump than walks. He’s led the Indians in walks every month since April and it never hurt his production before. Here are his monthly batting averages and walks: April .289 with 14 walks; May .336 with 17 walks; June .267 with 20 walks; July .322 with 19 walks; August .245 with 18 walks and September .167 with 18 walks.
Ramirez finished third in the AL in MVP voting last year. He hit .318 (186-for-585) with 107 runs, 56 doubles, six triples, 29 homers, 83 RBI, 17 steals and a .957 OPS. This year he’s hitting .270 (154-for-570) with 108 runs, 38 doubles, four triples, 38 homers, 105 RBI, 34 steals and a .939 OPS.
Fangraphs.com shows that 50.5 percent of the balls that the switch-hitter Ramirez has put in play this year have been pulled to either left or right field. That’s a career high and suggests Ramirez has gotten a little pull happy.
Ramirez has also set career highs for soft contact (18.3 percent) and infield flies (13.2 percent) on balls he’s put in play. That suggests some frustration may have crept into Ramirez’s swing because he’s being pitched to so carefully.
“He’s going through a period when it seems like he’s 1-2 or 0-2 every time he goes to the plate,” said manager Terry Francona. “That will change.”
The one thing Ramirez has not done is abandon the strike zone. He’s struck out 79 times compared to 106 walks. The 79 strikeouts are a career high, but in an era when most power hitters have 100 strikeouts by the break, Ramirez still controls the strike zone.
Among the AL’s top 12 home run hitters, Ramirez ranks fifth. He is the only one with fewer than 100 strikeouts. Joey Gallo has 40 homers and 207 strikeouts. Giancarlo Stanton has 38 homers and 210 strikeouts.
Ramirez was nursing a quadriceps injury early in the season, but he’s for all accounts healthy.
“I think he’s tired,” said one scout. “He plays awfully hard. I don’t see anything physically wrong with him, but he had such a hot start that there was bound to be a downturn. I think there’s been a little bit of a downturn since he moved to second base. There’s a little more to think about defensively at second base.
“He’s had a great season. He’s going to finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting. I just think he’s tired.”
Ramirez officially made the move from third to second on Sept. 11, but it had been in the works since the Indians acquired Josh Donaldson from Toronto on Aug. 31. Sources outside the organization felt one of the positives of the deal was Ramirez moving to his natural position at second base. Last season he made 86 starts at third and 65 at second for injured Jason Kipnis. He played so well at second that when Kipnis returned, the Indians moved him to center field.
This time around Ramirez has not looked comfortable. He still turns the double play well, but he’s had trouble on routine grounders and going back on pop ups.
As for Ramirez’s attitude, Van Burkleo said, “He’s handling this like a pro … like a pro.”
Added Lindor, “He’s still crazy Josie, loud Josie. He’s fine. He’s got a few more goals to reach and he’ll get those.”
Last year Ramirez went through an 8-for-60 slump from Aug. 5-23. He finished the season on a hot streak, hitting .400 (46-for-115). In the ALDS, however, he was worked over by the Yankees, hitting .100 (2-for-20) with two runs, no RBI and no extra-base hits.
Right now, all the Indians can do is wait. The worst-case scenario is that Ramirez’s slump carries into the ALDS against the Astros. The best-case scenario?
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Van Burkleo. “When he comes out of his slump, he comes out. He’ll hit .400 for six weeks.”
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