Aramis Ramirez’s Battle Against Breaking Balls | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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The Brewers were trailing 7-1 in the bottom of the 8th inning, on Thursday, when Aramis Ramirez stepped to the plate. In a game dominated by Cubs’ starting pitcher Matt Garza, who collected a season high 10 strikeouts against the Crew, Ramirez was one of the Brewers’ few bright spots. In his first at-bat, Ramirez walked on four straight fastballs from Garza. His second at-bat came in the fourth inning and ended when Ramirez slapped a 2-1 slider up the middle. It was the first hit against Garza that afternoon. In the bottom of the sixth, Garza attacked Ramirez with fastballs. Ramirez sent the second one just under the reach of Cubs’ shortstop Starlin Castro and into left field.

So Ramirez was 2-for-2 with a walk when he stepped to the plate against Cubs’ relief pitcher Blake Parker in the bottom of the eighth. After going 3-for-29 (.103) during the previous nine-game road trip, Ramirez was 9-for-20 (.450) on the home stand and had even collected the 2,000th hit of his career. While the Brewers’ season slowly circles the drain, the front office has vocalized their desire to move impact talent. Ramirez, a veteran third baseman who can hit for average and power, could be a valuable trade chip – especially if he continues to swing the bat like he did on the last home stand.

During his career, Ramirez has been a notoriously slow starter. He even joked with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak during spring training that “I would have like, five MVPs, in my house right now if I could ever get off to a good start”.  So the Brewers adjusted Ramirez’s spring training routine to jump-start his bat. Of course, a spring training knee injury, followed by a re-aggravation of the injury during the season’s fourth game, thwarted those plans.  With the knee injury now part of the equation, some people are wondering if Ramirez’s slow start is just history repeating itself or a sign of a bigger health concern. During a season where the Brewers would love to move older and more expensive talent for younger and less expensive talent (Ramirez will make $16 M next year and has a $14 M mutual option for 2015 with a $4 M buyout), Ramirez’s questionable health isn’t helping his trade value.

After watching Ramirez struggle out of the gates, last season, only to surge through the summer, I wondered if the recent home stand might indicate that Ramirez could be in for another strong summer. With the trade deadline a little over a month away, July 31st, Ramirez still has a chance to prove he’s healthy and boost his trade value. To start, I looked at Ramirez’s first half numbers in 2013 –

44 .273 .786 .162 18.4%

Though Ramirez has struggled, and missed time due to injury, his .786 OPS exactly matches Matt Holliday’s OPS for the season. Ramirez’s (.273 BA) bests Holliday’s (.267 BA). Holliday has a slightly higher ISO at .170 compared to Ramirez’s .162 ISO. Of course, Ramirez may not be worth as much on the trade market as Holliday, who is two years younger and hasn’t battled the injury bug recently, but Ramirez still brings a lot of value to the table.

Here’s how Ramirez first half of 2013 compares to his previous seasons –

2013 44 .273 .786 .162 18.4%
2012 78 .272 .821 .203 12.7%
2011 86 .298 .843 .199 13.0%
2010 62 .207 .648 .173 20.3%
2009 24 .333 .875 .167 11.5%
2008 88 .285 .901 .230 15.0%
2007 67 .312 .913 .244 12.1%
2006 85 .259 .801 .222 9.1%
2005 83 .298 .905 .251 12.5%
2004 79 .326 .924 .225 11.9%
2003 90 .277 .769 .164 16.3%
2002 68 .217 .603 .122 19.3%

Ramirez’s 2013 BA isn’t far off what he’s normally posted. It’s the decline in his power, as seen most prominently in his ISO, that’s the most disconcerting. The last time Ramirez’s ISO was this low was 2009 and 2010 — two seasons where he was also haunted by injuries.

In early May of 2009, Ramirez dislocated his shoulder against the Brewers when he dove for a ball rifled down the third base line by Ryan Braun. Ramirez ended up missing most of May and all of June due to the injury. Ramirez’s power outage in 2010 can be tied back to a thumb injury. Sound familiar? After battling the injury for most of May 2010, Ramirez finally went to the DL and missed most of June. In both cases, Ramirez returned for his injury to have a strong second half of the season –

2010 62 .276 .847 .250 15.0%
2009 58 .310 .917 .213 13.0%

In both cases, Ramirez’s power returned for the second half of the season. In fact, Ramirez’s ISO numbers have increased the second half of every season except 2007 (1st half .244/ 2nd half .233) and 2008 (1st half .230/ 2nd half .228) — both seasons in which Ramirez got off to a particularly strong start.  So can we expect a similar power surge the second half of this season and a corresponding increase in Ramirez’s trade value?

Well, that might depend on two things – Ramirez staying healthy and his ability to handle breaking balls. In my quest to uncover what might be at heart of Ramirez’s struggles, I came across this graph from Brooks Baseball of Ramirez’s “Whiffs per Swing” going back to the 2010 season –

Keep in mind that “Whiffs per Swing” is a percentage based on how many total swings Ramirez’s took that month. So there’s a bit of statistical noise on the graph, especially for the month of October (he played two October games in both 2010 and 2012).

Now look at the blue line, which represents Ramirez’s “Whiff per Swing” on breaking balls. Going back to the 2010 season, Ramirez’s struggles correspond with him waving at, and missing, a ton of breaking balls.

  • 2010 – Ramirez struggles to start the season, battles a thumb injury through May, and lands on the DL in June.
  • 2011 – Ramirez never has a month where his “Whiffs per Swing” on breaking balls reaches 35%. He bats .298 BA / .843 OPS / .199 ISO in the first half of the season and .319 BA / .909 OPS / .210 ISO in the second half.
  • 2012 – As Brewers’ fans witnessed, Ramirez’s early season struggles disappear along with the blue line charting his “Whiffs per Swing” on breaking balls.
  • 2013 – After getting injured in the fourth game of the season, Ramirez is eased back into the line-up. Ramirez has struggled for much of June, and hasn’t been providing much power. His “Whiffs per Swing” on breaking balls is the highest it’s been since June 2010 when he went on the DL with a thumb injury.

Here are Ramirez’s splits during months his “Whiff per Swing” on breaking balls exceeds 35% —

Month Year W/S on Breaking Balls G BA OPS ISO K%
March/April 2010 40.63% 23 .152 .498 .130 23.5%
May 2010 35.71% 20 .173 .494 .080 22.9%
June 2010 51.85% 10 .265 .813 .206 13.2%
March/April 2012 41.03% 22 .214 .645 .167 17.6%
June 2013 43.33% 19 .239 .674 .119 17.1%

To have a successful second half of the season, Ramirez must make better contact with breaking balls. In particular, he’s struggled mightily against curveballs. According to Fangraphs’ pitch values for Ramirez, the curveball and knuckle-curve (thrown by the Pirates’ A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, and Mark Melancon) are the pitches that have given Ramirez the most trouble this season.

Here’s how Ramirez has fared against various pitches. The “Pitch Values” are standardized to 100 pitches. So, if Ramirez sees that type of pitch 100 times, he will either perform well against them and add runs (+) or perform poorly and cost the team runs (-).

4-Seam FB 2-Seam FB Cut FB Splitter Sinker Slider Curve KCurve Change-Up
-1.29 -0.45 +3.36 +8.26 +4.03 +3.56 -2.79 -2.49 +3.64

As you can see, Ramirez’s main struggle as been to hit the curve but he has also struggled, to a lesser degree, against 4-Seam and 2-Seam fastballs. Of course, I’m not the only one to notice this.

Finally, let’s go back to Ramirez’s finally at-bat on Thursday against the Cubs. He’s 2/2 with a walk against Garza, whose out pitch is a slider – a pitch that Ramirez has handled extremely well this year. So Cubs manager Dale Sveum sends Blake Parker to the mound to start the 8th inning and face Ramirez. Parker fires off four consecutive 4-seam fastballs. Ramirez fouls off the last two to keep the count 1-2. Parker finally throws Ramirez a curve, which misses down and in. For the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Parker drops another curve on Ramirez. It’s lower than the first curve but is out over the plate. Ramirez takes a defensive swing and strikes out.

Whether Ramirez’s struggles with the curve are related to his knee injury, or whether it is more of a timing issues, I can’t say with any certainty. Either way, it’s a weakness that’s currently being exposed and diminishing his trade value.

Over his career, Aramis Ramirez has traditionally played better in the second half of the season. Even when injured, he’s been able to battle back and be a productive player. If he can do the same thing this year, Ramirez could be a valuable trade chip from the Brewers. But, before Ramirez’s name begins blowing in the trade winds, he must prove he’s healthy and make the necessary adjustments to lay off curveballs down in the zone. His value as trade bait for the Brewers hinges on it.

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