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July 25, 2013

Skewed Left

The Dodger Batter Who's Been Better Than Puig

by Zachary Levine

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Three stat lines from June 3 through today. You know what to do, good people of the internet.

Player A: .348 BA, .471 OBP, .522 SLG, 1 HR, 16 BB, 19 K
Player B: .369 BA, .409 OBP, .571 SLG, 8 HR, 8 BB, 44 K
Player C: .389 BA, .446 OBP, .705 SLG, 10 HR, 15 BB, 20 K

Okay, time’s up.

Player A is Josh Satin, but that has nothing to do with this conversation. He’s just been awesome.

Player B you’ll probably recognize as Yasiel Puig, whose line encapsulates the entirety of his major league career as he debuted on June 3, 2013 (henceforth known as January 1, 1.)

Player C, whose line you probably don’t recognize unless you’re an avid Dodgers fan or know how to read a subhead on BaseballProspectus.com, is Hanley Ramirez. While Puig has gained most of the attention, and justifiably so given his novelty, athleticism, and tremendous story, it is Ramirez who has led the Dodgers to a 29-15 record since his return, a 23-5 stretch, and a sweeping move from 9.5 games out to division leaders in exactly one month.

The Puig-era demarcation of “since June 3” also happens to cover all of Ramirez’s healthy return from the disabled list, where he has been a bit of a frequent flyer of late. This year alone, it’s been thumb surgery and a thigh strain, but the last three years paint an ugly picture of health.

Whole lotta body parts on here, but the rest of the lines are just a distraction from the shoulder surgery that cost him the last 52 games of the 2011 season.

When the Dodgers talk about what’s made Ramirez such an improved player and a 45-game star, it always starts with the shoulder. In part, it’s because they’re so sensitive to how debilitating a shoulder injury can be. Just feet away from where Mark McGwire was breaking down Ramirez’s swing in the clubhouse, Matt Kemp was de-mummifying, taking the wraps off the shoulder that has made him a fraction of his early-2012 self.

As for Ramirez, he had his first below-average TAv in the 2011 season interrupted by shoulder surgery, registering a .255 with Florida. That was followed by a .276 pre-trade and .267 post-trade TAv last year. This year, it’s been .391, and thanks in part to improvement in the defensive metrics, he’s already put up more WARP in the past 45 games than he did in 2011 and 2012 combined.

Parse those statistics further, and you can actually tell a pretty interesting story about how Ramirez has improved himself as a hitter, but ask the Dodgers, and starting there would be burying the lede.

“He's been feeling it the last year and a half with his shoulder, he had shoulder surgery, now he's healthy, he's strong and his swing looks as good as ever,” said McGwire, who took over as Dodgers hitting coach this offseason and has reaped the rewards of a healthy shortstop. “You got to get over the hump of 'All right, there's no more soreness in that area that you've injured.' Obviously, that's his lead shoulder; it's what Matt Kemp's dealing with right now.”

There is something different about Ramirez’s approach that offers a little bit of insight, though. Check out his strikeout rate from year to year beginning in his first full season, when he was named Rookie of the Year.

2006: 18.3%
2007: 13.5%
2008: 17.6%
2009: 15.5%
2010: 15.0%
2011: 17.1%
2012: 19.8%
2013: 12.0%

On both sides of the trade last year—but especially after it, when he struck out 22 percent of the time—Ramirez was the most strikeout-prone of his career. What he’s followed it up with has been pretty staggering, albeit with the sample size caveat that comes with 166 plate appearances.

The big difference is that he’s one of the quickest to get into and out of the batter’s box, which wasn’t at all his game last year. In 2012, he saw 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, and while there can be some chicken-and-egg happenings with this stat, he’s walking even more this year and has lowered that pitches per plate appearance number to 3.40.

That would be the fewest in the National League if he were a rate-stat qualifier, but among players with at least 150 plate appearances, he ranks fifth behind a couple Nationals and the obligatory Yuni in what is not considered to be a very prestigious leaderboard.

Steve Lombardozzi: 3.16 P/PA
Nolan Arenado: 3.27
Yuniesky Betancourt: 3.35
Danny Espinosa: 3.37
Hanley Ramirez: 3.40

Yet Ramirez has been making impatience work. When he’s getting his pitch, he’s hitting it.

Whether that became a conscious effort to swing earlier after all of last year’s strikeouts is still sort of murky. Ramirez declined to answer questions about his approach out of reluctance to talk about himself. McGwire spun around the word “aggressive” when the same question was put to him.

“I don't like the word aggressive—the word I like to use is he's ready to hit,” McGwire said. “Most pitchers want to get ahead with strike one and then try to expand the zone. So if you know that pitcher's going to try to get ahead of you, why are you going to spot him a strike? You have to make sure it's in the area you're looking in, but if it's there, he's ready to hit.”

Whether or not the earlier swings have been a result of a conscious approach, they’re nonetheless a big part of the story. He’s swung at 42 percent of first pitches, well above his career number of 32 percent and well, well above the MLB average of 27 percent.

Manager Don Mattingly has certainly noticed the distinct drop in strikeouts, and he put it on a different portion of his approach.

“The strikeouts were really just more that it seemed like he wasn't using the whole field last year,” Mattingly said. “To me, he's using the whole field, he's taking his hits. Last year, I think the shoulder was really bothering him when we got him. He was more ‘hit homers.’ He was too good of a hitter, we felt like, and he needed to be using the whole field.”

Those hits to all parts of the field will come down as his BABIP floats back to something normal from its current .400. But cutting down on the strikeouts after last year’s career high has been vitally important, and if he is able to continue that trend, he’ll survive regression well into the depths of his late-developing season.

Amid the fever that has the Dodgers players wearing different custom-made Puig T-shirts before batting practice, Ramirez has been the one leading the way and still drawing plenty of raves.

“I've always loved his swing from afar,” McGwire said. “His hands are always on a downward plane, he hits through the baseball. It's almost like he never tries to finish his swing, he just lets it finish when it's supposed to finish. He gets true backspin.

“People tend to forget that he won a batting title, and he's dealt with a couple years that he's been injured, and now he's back healthy and it's really cool.”

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Los Angeles Dodgers,  Hanley Ramirez

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