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October 2, 2008
Like many baseball players who make their way to the United States from Cuba, a lot less is known of Alexei Ramirez' career prior to his time in the major leagues than would be the case with a player from anywhere else on the globe. There were scouting reports and statistics available for those who were interested in signing the Cuban native, but for the Average Joe, learning about his previous playing time is a difficult endeavor. Today, we will take a look at what we do know about Alexei Ramirez, and how that helps us uncover what kind of player he will be going forward.
Alexei Fernando Ramirez was born September 22, 1981, according to the birthday submitted by his agent, Jamie Torres, when he made himself available to major league clubs. The other birthday that's in circulation is April 25; the reason for the confusion is that Ramirez has listed each of those birthdays at different times, depending on which international tournament he was participating in. His agent was well known, as he is the one responsible for representing teammate Jose Contreras, as well as Yohannis Perez and Yoslan Herrera. All of those players signed impressive contracts upon arriving, and Ramirez was no exception, inking a four-year deal with the Chicago White Sox that will pay him just over a million dollars per year from here on out—not too shabby for a guy who had never played in the majors before.
As for his ability, major league scouts had some history with him, as he was one of the Cuban players who participated in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 (where Cuba finished second), and was also a member of the 2004 Cuban team in the Athens Olympics, where Cuba won a Gold medal. He hit .375 in the WBC, though that was in all of 16 at-bats, but based on the limited numbers available he seemed like a talented hitter in his home country. Over six seasons, Ramirez hit .332 with a .503 slugging percentage over 2,115 at-bats. He wasn’t much for hitting homers, with 67 on his career and one every 31 at-bats or so, but he did hit 20 of those during the 2007 season (with a .335 batting average and .574 SLG), showcasing more power as he entered his peak; those 20 homers were also good for the league lead. He also picked up plenty of extra-base hits overall, as evidenced by the .171 ISO and 140 doubles and triples combined that he amassed in six seasons. One thing he needed work on was his baserunning, as he swiped 38 bags but was nabbed 29 times for a career 57 percent success rate.
Despite this, scouts gave him high marks for his speed—he just needed to improve on his technique for base thievery. He was considered at least an average defender at both shortstop and in the outfield, and his bat was thought to be good enough to play at either position. Though regularly a shortstop for Pinar del Rio, he spent a significant amount of time in the outfield as well, and played center for the Cuban entry in the WBC. He would audition for four teams, but eventually signed a $4.75 million deal with the White Sox. With the holes in both their infield and outfield, Ramirez was a solid investment, regardless of whether he was truly 26 as his agent reported, or older, as so many imports have turned out to be.
There would be some hiccups for Ramirez during the start to his season, as he hit just .143/.163/.190 from the start of the year through May 15, and ran into some visa trouble during a White Sox road trip to Canada to face the Blue Jays. His work visa prohibited him from re-entering the United States if he left for another country, and though the White Sox had obviously planned ahead to make sure this didn't happen, the situation did not resolve itself in time for an early May series north of the border. Ramirez never would make it to Canada during his first year in the majors, as he would only face the Blue Jays at home in Chicago thanks to a schedule that required just the one road trip.
He hit his first major league home run on May 16, and started to take off offensively after that, putting together a .308/.327/.481 line the rest of the month. Once he hit that stride, he wouldn't slow down again for the rest of the summer, posting a .329/.345/.528 line from that day through August 31, before he ran out of gas in September and cobbled together a much less impressive month (.213/.275/.415). There is a silver lining to be taken from his poor performance at year's end though: it's a small sample of 94 at-bats, but it appears as if his plate discipline picked up a bit, with his highest monthly Isolated Patience of the year at .062, and he did still manage to match his monthly high with six homers. One of those six homers was the grand slam that put away the Tigers in a makeup game earlier this week. Not only did that victory force a one-game playoff against the Twins, it gave Alexei Ramirez the rookie record for grand slams—his fourth of the year bested Shane Spencer's mark set in 1998.
Ramirez matched many of the expectations that PECOTA put forth before the season began during his successful rookie campaign. His weighted mean forecast had him down for a .298/.344/.459 campaign with a .280 EqA and 21.6 VORP. He finished at .290/.317/.475 with a .266 EqA—lower than projected thanks to poor stolen-base decisions (just 13 for 22 on the year) and just 18 unintentional walks—and a 20.6 VORP. He flashed solid power with home runs on 13.8 percent of his fly balls, but overall his fly-ball numbers were average, with a 1.3 G/F ratio and 36.6 percent of all balls in play going in the air. The plate discipline is the obvious issue going forward, though as stated, we may want to keep an eye on him in the playoffs to see if he's become more selective with time, as his September numbers imply. As pitchers get used to Ramirez and recognize which pitches he's going to send into orbit, he will need to adjust and walk more often in order to avoid a jump in his strikeout rate that would adversely affect his batting average and hurt his value. This is fairly common stuff for a rookie, though Ramirez is older than most given he's a Cuban import, but if he is able to meet these problems head on, he's going to be an impressive player to watch at a bargain price for Chicago.—Marc Normandin
We hear so often that players of Latin descent play baseball with the motto, "you don't walk off the island" in mind. Ramirez, a second baseman from Cuba, took this to heart in his first major league season, posting a 3.6 percent walk rate, so low that only Yuniesky Betancourt and teammate A.J. Pierzynski have taken free passes less often. On the flip side of that, though, Ramirez is very tough to strike out, as evidenced by his 12.7 percent strikeout rate, the tenth-best mark in the junior circuit. He saw half of the pitches thrown his way in the strike zone, so the lack of walks cannot be attributed to being pitched around or failing to see decent pitches; if there is one facet of his slash line this season that was disappointing, it would definitely have to be the .317 OBP.
While the Cell gets credited for being generous to right-handed hitters with power, he performed virtually the same at home and on the road, with a 789 OPS in Chicago and a 796 OPS in all other parks. His splits against different-handed pitchers revealed that he feasts on lefties: in 148 PAs versus southpaws, he has a .312/.340/.529 line, with an extra-base hit every 8.1 at-bats. In 361 PAs versus northpaws, a .281/.307/.453 line, much closer to his overall seasonal rates, with an extra-base hit every 12.2 at-bats—still not shabby. With runners in scoring position, Ramirez was at his best, hitting .380/.398/.611, and seven of his 21 home runs. While he did not perform terribly in crucial or relatively unimportant situations, Alexei did produce his best numbers in situation of medium leverage. He did not discriminate against types of pitchers either, posting his best numbers against pitchers who were average power/finesse and average fly-ball/ground-ball in tendencies.
Ramirez ranked 26th among second basemen in the Dewan +/- fielding system, with a -8, in other words deeming him eight plays worse than an average keystoner. He exceeded expectations on balls hit in the air, making five more plays than he "should" have, while making thirteen fewer plays than expected on the ground. Getting into a bit more detail, balls in the vicinity of straight on were no problem for the rookie, but he had trouble ranging to his left and even more trouble to his right. On balls hit to his left, Ramirez made six fewer plays than an average second baseman, and ten less plays than average on balls hit to his right. For reference, Dan Uggla in 2007 had a -15 to his left and a -7 to his right. Ramirez was not that poor, but he wasn't a whole heck of a lot better.
On the basepaths, he scored a -1, earning a +4 for his actual base advancements, but a -5 for having 13 steals, being caught nine times. Ramirez made it from first to third in 43 percent of his opportunities, and scored from second on 42 percent of his opportunities. While the somewhat low percentage of going first to third is not awful—Utley, who is considered a great baserunner, had just a 43 percent success rate, and Asdrubal Cabrera checked in at 54 percent—the rate of scoring from second could be higher. For comparison's sake, both Utley and Cabrera scored from second base over 70 percent of the time. One interesting note, though, is the lack of opportunity for Ramirez to make these advancements, which is one reason to take this year's results with a grain of salt. The hitters backing him either did not hit the ball hard enough, or at all, for him to garner a truly significant amount of opportunities. For all we know he could have exhibited better base-running skills with more chances and different circumstances.
He may have had a below-average year with the glove and an approximately break-even year on the basepaths, and he will need to improve his plate discipline, but Ramirez still had a very solid rookie season as the keystone cornerman for the AL Central champion White Sox. After his slugging exploits, you can bet that he'll draw plenty of attention in the ALDS against the Rays.—Eric Seidman
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.