José Ramírez’s offensive breakout last year was much-needed for Cleveland, helping the team come within a few outs of a World Series title in a season they spent almost entirely without their most productive position player. It also didn’t seem particularly sustainable—a young player whose bat had never been his selling point, suddenly boasting a 113 OPS+ after topping out at a paltry 81 in his first two major-league seasons. But instead of slipping backwards this year, Ramírez has done the opposite.
Take a look at an offensive leaderboard and you’ll find him among baseball’s top ten this season, a surprising name holding court with the familiar suspects of Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt. He’s hit .326/.381/.567, bumping the 113 OPS+ that seemed crazy for him last year to an outlandish 140. And while he started out the year strong, it’s really been the past month where he’s exploded. By some measures, he’s been the best player in baseball in that time—boasting a line of .420/.458/.732.
Last year’s breakout, then, seems to be for real. The question is how. There was plenty in the 24-year-old’s 2016 stat line that seemed to indicate regression would be in store for 2017. For one thing, there was the fact that his 2016 success had come in large part from a batting average on balls in play that jumped a hundred points from 2015. For another, there hadn’t been any especially meaningful changes in his profile otherwise—he hadn’t been making harder contact or drawing more walks or anything of the sort. José Ramírez was a better player in 2016 than he’d been at any point previously! But he was also benefitting from much better fortune than he had at any point previously, and that’s the sort of combination that usually spells regression on the horizon.
For Ramírez, obviously, it didn’t. Some of that has been a result of improved secondary skills that have revealed a new batted-ball profile for him—he’s been making harder contact this year, and for the first time in his career he’s hitting fewer groundballs than fly balls. Some of that has been good fortune that’s kept coming—home runs are up for everyone, yes, but Ramírez has seen his rate of flies turning into home runs more than double this season. The BABIP that increased by a hundred points from 2015 to 2016 has only kept at it in 2017, currently sitting at .342, but that’s starting to look further from an unsustainable year of good luck and closer to a new normal for a fairly speedy guy who’s adjusted to success at the plate.
His current hot streak won’t last forever, because numbers like .420/.458/.732 just can’t. Even taking that into consideration, though, it’s clear that José Ramírez is a substantially different player than he was two years ago—and the five-year, $26 million extension he signed in spring training now looks especially smart for Cleveland.