Jose Ramirez Is Turning Into Quite a Bargain for the Indians

The Indians signed Ramirez to a long-term deal after one good season, but he is making them look smart with his performance thus far in 2017.

En route to appearing in their first World Series since 1997, the Cleveland Indians got production from all over their roster, which included a breakout campaign from third baseman Jose Ramirez. The organization followed that up by signing him to a five year-$26 million extension, with two team options that can push the deal to seven years, $50 million.

Although it's not a huge deal, it was still risky for both sides. Ramirez gets the stability every athlete desires, but also loses out on potentially maximizing his earnings through the arbitration process. Meanwhile, the Indians hitch their wagon to a player with basically one good season under his belt.

So far in 2017, though, the 24-year-old has taken yet another step forward to show that what he did last year was no fluke.

Following a Breakout

Ramirez first landed in the majors as a September call-up in 2013, but didn't start getting significant playing time with Cleveland until 2014. He was far from a great player during his first two big league seasons, but seemed to figure it out in 2016. The below table compares his numbers from 2014-15 to what he did in 2016.

2014-15 621 .638 .105 .259 76 2.5
2016 618 .825 .150 .333 122 4.8

He was a fine, yet unspectacular utility player in those first two seasons, producing a rather poor 76 wRC+ in a just about a full season's worth of plate appearances. Most of that changed in 2016, with significant increases across the board. This included a slight rise in home runs (8 to 11) and a more drastic increase in the number of doubles he hit (24 to 46).

This was an encouraging sequence of events, but it was still risky for the Indians. This was just his first truly productive campaign in the majors, and it included a BABIP that was much different than his recent history. It seemed like it could've been primed for regression, but he's only been better this year.

Through 314 plate appearances, he's already set a career high in home runs (12), while his .323/.379/.561 are all on pace to also be new personal bests. He's done this with a .338 BABIP, which is right in line with what he did in 2016, and he's currently sitting at 3.0 fWAR, which is more than halfway to what he finished with last season.

Furthermore, his 147 wRC+ is one of the best marks among qualified hitters, and first among qualified third basemen. That's right -- he's been better overall at the hot corner than guys like Miguel Sano, Jake Lamb, Nolan Arenado, and Kris Bryant.

He has turned into a bona fide star, and the Indians have done right by banking on his 2016 season.

Better Contact

There is an obvious statistical difference between how the early-career version of Ramirez produced compared to present day, and it didn't come out of nowhere. He isn't walking more than normal (8.3% in '17, 7.4% in career) or striking out any less (12.1% in '17, 11.3% in career), so what's the difference? It's in the contact he makes.

The below table shows how his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%) and fly-ball rate (FB%) have changed over the years, along with his quality of contact, which includes soft-hit rate (Soft%), medium-hit rate (Med%), and hard-hit rate (Hard%).

Year LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
2014-15 19.7% 47.5% 32.8% 20.2% 56.2% 23.6%
2016-17 23.0% 39.8% 37.2% 14.1% 56.3% 29.6%

While his hard-hit rate is still on the lower end of the spectrum, he's made great strides since just last year -- after posting a 26.8% mark in 2016, it's currently at 35.8% this season. If we combine that with an increased line-drive rate (which is key for his rising BABIP) and an increase in fly-ball rate (which helps produce more homers), his progression into an above-average hitter makes a ton of sense.

With a strikeout rate as low as his, it's clear he makes a ridiculous amount of contact. That's evidenced by the percentage of balls he makes contact with in the strike zone, which is 91.3% for his career, along with a 5.1% swinging-strike rate for his career. That was already impressive in itself, but he's taken things to the next level because of the improvements he's made in his quality of contact.

It took him a little while to find his footing in the big leagues because he was called up at a young age, too. Ranked as the ninth-best prospect in Cleveland's system in 2013, he hadn't yet celebrated his 22nd birthday before first tasting the majors. His game still had some maturing to do upon landing in Cleveland, which he did as a bench player.

Ramirez simply grew into his offensive game, which he has found since the start of 2016 and has now become an elite option at the hot corner for the Indians.