First, here's some color-television footage from Monday's Indians-Tigers tilt (CLE-DET GameTracker) that provides us with the tidy rationale we need to talk about Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez as an AL MVP candidate:
That's Ramirez's going yard the 13th time this season, and that ties with him with a slew of other sluggers for the major-league lead. As of that clout, the 25-year-old switch-hitter is now batting .291/.382/.632 thus far in 2018. Obviously, those are MVP-caliber outputs with the bat, but there's much more to Ramirez than "just" big numbers at the plate. He grades out as a pronounced defensive asset at the hot corner, and he's also taken the extra-base an impressive 59 percent of the time thus far while stealing six bags in seven attempts.
It's those offensive numbers, though, that do the heavy lifting. They're also looking for real. Ramirez of course leveled up last season, as he authored an impressive OPS+ of 143 for Cleveland and finished third in the AL MVP balloting. This season, though, he's been even better, and in part it's because of a refined approach at the plate. The fact that Ramirez in 2018 has worked 20 unintentional walks against just 16 strikeouts while putting up big power numbers tells you that much, but let's take a slightly deeper dive (numbers via FanGraphs):
|2018||Strike %||Swing %||Out-of-zone swing %||Contact rate||Whiff %||K/BB ratio|
That's the profile of a highly disciplined hitter. Ramirez isn't seeing a high percentage of strikes -- because he's a potent hitter -- and he's not helping pitchers out by swinging at their chase offerings. Indeed, he's swinging less than 40 percent of the time, but he does offer at a pitch he almost always puts the bat on it (among qualifiers, just Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks and teammate Michael Brantley have higher contact rates). Even though he's been one of baseball's top power hitters in 2018, Ramirez almost never swings and misses. That's indicative of a hitter who knows what he's doing and is capable of keeping it up. That, plus Ramirez's strong recent track record is why you can see, despite the somewhat early hour, that he's going to wind up high on MVP ballots once again -- barring injury, of course. This time, he just might win it.
Remember when the Indians raised eyebrows by inking Ramirez to a $26 million contract extension prior to the 2017 season? Ramirez was coming off a soft breakout in 2016, but given that he showed very little power in the minors it looked like a risk. As it turns out, the Indians have already gotten a massive bargain on that deal. It's hard to blame Ramirez for taking the life-changing guarantee considering the D.R. native signed for a modest $50,000 bonus back in 2009. Still, this contract isn't going to come close to paying Ramirez what he's been and will be worth, even after you account for the two club options on the back end.
Those concerns aside, Ramirez is once again looking like one of the very best ballplayers in the world.