MLB Buy or Sell: Alexei Ramirez's Hot Start
Welcome to the latest edition of a new feature at numberFire entitled “Buy or Sell.”
The concept of this feature is simple: I'll examine something currently interesting in baseball, such as a player, team, or statistic and discuss whether we, as a baseball community, should be buying or selling them or it.
There may not always be an easy or clear-cut answer to this question, as streaks and fluke performances are abundant in the game we know and love. With this exercise, I intend to examine such performances and make a case that a performance is either the result of a player getting better at baseball (buy) or mere good fortune (sell).
Not all articles in this series will deal with analyzing a small-sample size performance or a hot streak. Some will deal with the promotion of a top prospect, while others could deal with a specific stat with a specific player, such as Jose Abreu's absurd amount of home runs or Troy Tulowitzki's performance with runners in scoring position.
I will be selecting players and topics that I think are most interesting and relevant, but if you have a player or topic that you would like examined, hit us up on Twitter (@DanWiggles38 or @numberFire) and let us know.
Without further ado, here is the latest edition of Buy or Sell, featuring White Sox' Shortstop Alexei Ramirez.
Signed out of Cuba an amateur free agent in 2008, White Sox fans had visions of stardom for their young, talented, expensive shortstop.
Those lofty expectations have never been met, but Ramirez has still been consistently average for the Sox since debuting in 2008. His 5.6 WAR season in 2010 aside, Alexei Ramirez has provided between 1.5 and 3.5 wins for the Sox every season of his career.
This year, however, things have been different for the infielder. While most expected Ramirez to have another average season in Chicago, Ramirez started hot, but perhaps more surprisingly, has stayed hot through the first quarter of the season.
As the sample grows larger and the performance becomes more impressive, it's time to ask whether Ramirez’s hot start is for real. Is this the same average shortstop we are accustomed to seeing, or is this new and improved Ramirez here to stay?
In conversational English, we ask whether or not something is “for real.” When in the context of analyzing an abrupt change in a sample of baseball statistics, what we really mean is whether the change is due to random variance or an improvement in skill by the player.
In the case of Ramirez, there are many statistics that help us answer this question. BABIP is the logical place to start, especially as Ramirez’s .327 average is far above his .280 career mark or .284 mark last season.
Ramirez’s BABIP of .351 is inflated and well above his typical marks, but this could be a result of Ramirez squaring the ball up more often and spraying line drives all over the field. Unfortunately for Sox fans, this is not the case.
Instead of hitting more line drives, Ramirez has actually hit fewer line drives this season. His 16.7% line-drive rate is his lowest figure since 2009, and well below his 2013 mark of 22.1%.
This means that, not only has Ramirez been getting fortunate with his results of balls in play, the balls that he has put in play are of a lower quality than normal. This statistic alone screams regression, as with his current line-drive rate, Ramirez would be fortunate to merely match his career offensive numbers, let alone drastically surpass them.
Another aspect of Ramirez’s surprising start is his newfound power, which is demonstrated by his .164 ISO and .491 SLG. Neither figure is close to his career average, so what are we to make of his newfound pop?
Unlike the previous question, there are no telling statistics explaining his surprising power surge. Ramirez is hitting slightly more fly balls, but a 33.3% fly-ball rate is still far from a high rate.
One of the better stats for evaluating power is HR/FB rate. Ramirez plays in a bandbox, meaning that his HR/FB rate is likely to be higher in Chicago than it would be in somewhere like PETCO Park, but his 2014 figure of 10.9% is still way above his recent norms.
There are two explanations for this. First, Ramirez could have gotten stronger and is now capable of hitting fly balls out of the ballpark at about a league-average rate (roughly 10.5%). Additionally, the added strength has caused fly balls hit by Ramirez to carry further, meaning that long fly outs are now going for extra base hits and extra base hits are now going for home runs. I have no way to measure this, but it is an idea worth entertaining.
Alternatively, it's more likely that this is simply the result of a small sample size. Ramirez has hit only 46 fly balls this season, so it is reasonable to suggest that he just so happened to hit long fly balls a bit more frequently than pop-ups thus far this year. If this is indeed the case, his fluke of increased power is easily explained. If Ramirez keeps up his high HR/FB rate and extra base hits over a larger sample, then we will be forced to give serious thought to the possibility that the 32 year old has experienced a sudden and unusual boost in power.
Buy or Sell?
It should be obvious by now, but I am selling both Ramirez’s increased hit tool and power tool. There is no evidence that suggests that his hot start is anything more than the result of the random variance that occurs within small sample sizes of baseball data.
Had Ramirez boosted his peripheral statistics, such as K rate, BB rate, LD rate, and so forth, I would have no problem asserting that this player has improved his skills and is a better player than the player we have grown accustomed to seeing over the past few years.
However, this isn't the case. Ramirez’s peripheral stats not only suggest that he has been the beneficiary of good fortune, they suggest that his skill set may even be diminished this year. If Ramirez was going to experience a change in performance this year, it would be much more likely that the performance would be negative, not positive.
Moving forward, expect Ramirez to immediately revert to his old self, namely a roughly average shortstop hitting around .275, refusing to take walks, showing occasional pop and sprinkling in 20-30 steals.
A player with that skill set is still a very valuable piece on any club, so do not interpret this piece as an argument that Ramirez is a poor baseball player. Ramirez is a very good baseball player and has always been a very good baseball player, but he cannot be expected to continue his hot streak any longer. The necessary baseball skills to match his recent performance simply are not present with this player.
On deck for Buy or Sell: Garrett Richards' hot start