What is up with Aramis Ramirez? The Cub third baseman missed half of 2009 with calf and shoulder injuries, but still put together a solid .317/.389/.516 slash line with 15 HR and 65 RBI. Healthy entering this year and among the top fantasy choices at third, Ramirez opened 2010 with a pair of hits – including a home run – against the Braves. One month into the season, that remains his only multi-hit game of the year. By his second game, Ramirez was kicking off a stretch where he would go hitless in 23 plate appearances.
As we enter May, he’s still trying to find his footing.
On the surface, you may note his .169 BABIP and think Ramirez has just been unlucky. For his career, he owns a .289 BABIP and has been north of .300 in each of the last three seasons. However, a large part of the issue stems from the fact he’s hitting a line drive only 15% of the time he puts the ball in play, well off his career rate of 20%. You may see these numbers and figure the prescription for recovery is just a healthy dose of patience – Ramirez is good enough that he’ll eventually come around.
Perhaps. Although there are some underlying issues that warn recovery may take longer than expected.
The real issue has to do with contact. Or in Ramirez’s case, the lack of contact.
Currently, Ramirez is striking out in 23.4% of all at bats, the worst rate since his rookie year. In fact, aside from his rookie campaign in 1998, Ramirez has never posted a strikeout rate above 17%. Since his age 26 season in 2004 through 2008, he has done a fantastic job managing his strikeout rate while averaging over 30 home runs per year. His strikeout rate was just 12.6% last season and entering this year his career rate was 13.7%.
Since he’s now striking out at such a high rate, it follows his contact rate has plummeted to 71%, well below his career rate of 80%. Again, it’s his worst contact percentage since his rookie year. Obviously, with an elevated strikeout rate and a low amount of contact, he's now putting fewer balls in play. This year, he’s making the defense work in 66% of his plate appearances. For his career, he puts the ball in play 73% of the time.
So he’s making less contact this year, and the type of contact he’s making isn’t exactly quality. It adds up to a third baseman in a horrible slump.
Why is Ramirez struggling so much? Let's begin by looking at how he's faring against fastballs this year.
The following chart compares his performance against fastballs for the start of his 2010 season (he’s played in 25 games) with his first 25 games of 2009. (He missed time in the first half of last season with a calf strain and a separated shoulder so his 25th game last year came on July 16 – the first game after the All-Star Break.) I included his first 25 games of the 2008 season as a “control” of sorts. In those games he hit .281/.397/.522 – very close to his final line of .289/.380/.518.
Selection is the percentage of all pitches Ramirez saw that were fastballs. The rest should be self-explanatory.
He’s missing a fair share of fastballs while putting fewer in play this year. It’s interesting that his start from this year is closer to his start in 2008 than last season.
2009 looks like an outlier. The baseball must have looked massive to Ramirez in his first 25 games last year. He was swinging more and missing less on his way to a .323/.370/.484 start.
The next two charts illustrate the location of the pitches Ramirez took last year through his first 25 games and the pitches he’s taking this year through a similar time frame.
From Texas Leaguers, here are the pitches he took in 2009:
Again from Texas Leaguers, here are the pitches he's taken so far this year:
Notice the cluster of fastballs Ramirez is taking on the outer half of the plate on this year’s chart. He's taking a pass on pitches he's handled in the past.
I get the feeling the opposing pitchers are throwing fastballs on the outer half because they know Ramirez can’t generate the bat speed to catch up to those pitches. Early in the season he was offering and missing at those fastballs. Now Ramirez is laying off those pitches, taking called strikes and falling behind in the count.
The problem isn’t only with the fastballs. For years, Ramirez has had difficulty with sliders. This year, it’s more pronounced.
Like the fastballs, Ramirez is missing more sliders and overall putting fewer in play. Overall though, he’s seeing fewer sliders this year. I think it’s because pitchers know they can get him out with the fastball away.
Ramirez is swinging and missing at a ton of pitches and has made an adjustment where he is now laying off pitches on the outer half of the plate. It’s a vicious cycle with no easy way to escape. His confidence is shattered.
There may be a glimmer of hope. He’s hit in seven of his last eight games, (just 7-34, a .206 BA) with only three strikeouts. Less strikeouts is a positive step, but the contact still isn't there. He has quite a way to go to steady the ship.