MLB trends: Guardians’ José Ramírez flirting with 162 RBI; Twins’ Luis Arraez is league’s best contact hitter
The 2022 MLB regular season is more than two months old and the contenders are separating themselves from the pretenders. Several teams that started out hot are coming back to Earth (like the Angels) and others that started slowly are climbing the standings (like the Braves). That said, there’s still a lot — a LOT — of season to be played.
With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at two extreme contact hitters on historic paces, and the league-wide strikeout rate. Last week we looked at Sandy Alcantara’s dominant run, Ian Happ’s improved contact ability, and the Yankees shutting down the running game.
The unrivaled Ramírez
Guardians third baseman José Ramírez has been one of the best all-around players in baseball for the better part of a decade now, and he might be having his finest season in 2022. Still just 29, Ramírez owns a .303/.393/.636 batting line and he’s driven in 62 runs in Cleveland’s 63 games. He has a chance to become only the sixth player in the last 75 years (and only the third player in the last 72 years) to finish a season with more RBI than team games. The last five to do it:
Manny Ramirez, 1999 Cleveland: 165 RBI in 162 team gamesJeff Bagwell, 1994 Astros: 116 RBI in 115 team games (strike-shortened season)Vern Stephens, 1949 Red Sox: 159 RBI in 155 team gamesTed Williams, 1949 Red Sox: 159 RBI in 155 team gamesJoe DiMaggio, 1948 Yankees: 155 RBI in 154 team games
“They’re so different,” Guardians manager Terry Francona told the Medina Gazette when asked to compare José Ramírez to Manny Ramirez, one of his former players. “I used to laugh, because Manny in the batter’s box, boy, look out. But when he left the batter’s box, look out. Josey is a premier player everywhere on the field. He impacts the game everywhere. If you’re talking about Josey in those comparisons, that’s a pretty big compliment, probably to both guys.”
Ramírez combines power hitter production with contact hitter, well, contact ability. He’s struck out in only 7.5 percent of his plate appearances, the second lowest rate in baseball among qualified hitters (teammate Steven Kwan is at 7.0 percent), and his 4.8 percent swinging strike rate is the fifth lowest in baseball. Few players swing and miss this infrequently, and even fewer do it while hitting for this much power. This is a rare combination of skills.
My favorite fun fact of the season: Ramírez has more home runs (12) than swings and misses (8) on fastballs in the strike zone. Rafael Devers, another power hitter with a better than average strikeout rate (17.1 percent), has 11 homers on fastballs in the zone, but has swung and missed 65 times. Ramírez’s blend of contact and power is truly in a class of its own.
The Guardians have won 16 of their last 20 games, including a 6-5 11th-inning victory over the host Twins on Tuesday that put then into a virtual tie with Minnesota in the AL Central. (The two teams will play five games at Progressive Field next week.) Cleveland is very much in the division mix, and if that doesn’t work out, they’re in position to contend for a wild card spot. Ramírez is more than an MVP candidate. He’s a unicorn, the rare player who provides modern power with early old-school contact rates.
Arraez chasing obscure history
Similar to Ramírez, Twins infielder Luis Arraez is one of the great contact hitters in baseball today. His strikeout (8.3 percent) and swinging strike (3.3 percent) rates are right there with Ramírez, though Arraez doesn’t hit for nearly as much power. Ramírez has 16 home runs. Arraez has 12 extra-base hits total (eight doubles and four homers).
There’s nothing wrong with the lack of power, of course. Arraez owns a .362/.442/.457 batting line and leads baseball in batting average and on-base percentage. He and Ramírez are two of the seven qualified hitters with more walks than strikeouts this season:
Arraez’s high contact/low power approach gives him a chance to finish the year with a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage. In fact, before going 2 for 5 with a double and a homer Tuesday, Arraez had a .443 OBP and a .439 SLG. Almost three months into the season and he still had a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage.
The OBP > SLG season is hardly unprecedented, though it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it once did, and it rarely happens when the player slugs over .400. Only five times since the mound was lowered in 1969 has a hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title had an OBP > SLG season while slugging at least .400. The list:
Nick Johnson, 2009 Nationals and Marlins
Mike Hargrove, 1981 Cleveland
Mike Hargrove, 1980 Cleveland
Willie Randolph, 1980 Yankees
Gene Tenace, 1977 Padres
No player has had an OBP > SLG season with at least a .420 slugging percentage since Albie Pearson hit .288/.420/.400 with the expansion Angels in 1961. No player has done it with at least a .430 slugging percentage since 1955, when Richie Ashburn hit .338/.449/.448 with the Phillies. Still a lot of season to be played, but Arraez is within striking distance.
Ultimately, the OBP > SLG season is a neat statistical quirk more than historic. It’s a testament to a unique skill set and not much more. For the Twins, the most important thing is Arraez is sparking one of the game’s highest scoring offenses with his extreme contact and on-base profile. The Twins already have plenty of power thanks to Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa, among others. It’s on Arraez to set the table for those guys, and he’s done a spectacular job to date.
MLB’s strikeout rate is plateauing
Major League Baseball is on track to do something this season that hasn’t happened since 2005: the league strikeout rate will go down from one season to the next. The MLB strikeout rate went from 16.9 percent in 2004 to 16.4 percent in 2005, and it has increased in every 162-game season since (we’re going to ignore the short and unusual pandemic season in 2020).
Last season MLB hitters struck out in 23.2 percent of their plate appearances. This year it’s down a full percentage point to 22.2 percent. That decline is attributable almost entirely to the universal DH. Pitchers are awful hitters and they struck out in 44.2 percent of their plate appearances in 2021. The rest of the league — the actual hitters — struck out 22.6 percent of the time.
Here are the league-wide strikeout and swinging strike rates for non-pitchers over the last 10 full seasons (so ignoring 2020):
Even removing pitchers, there has been a steady increase in strikeout rate and swinging strike rate over the last decade. This year though, it stopped, and both rates have more or less plateaued. Strikeouts and swinging strikes are at roughly the same level this season as 2019. No longer is the strikeout rate exploding. It seems to have hit a ceiling, even if only temporarily.
MLB wants to reduce strikeouts — the logic behind deadening the ball is making home runs harder to hit and forcing hitters to focus on contact, though that adjustment won’t happen overnight — and the first step in reducing the strikeout rate is stopping it from increasing. That appears to have happened. Now that the strikeout rate increase has been halted, MLB can work on reversing the trend.
There are absolutely times when a strikeout is exciting. Your favorite team’s stud closer striking out the other team’s best hitter with men on base to nail down a win, etc. That kind of thing. The problem is those exciting strikeouts are outnumbered by those “eight of the last 12 batters have struck out” stretches in lower leverage situations. There’s too many long stretches without a ball in a play and it’s negative for the sport, and kudos to MLB for trying to fix it. The universal DH is one step. Cracking down on foreign substances is another. There’s still work to be done, but at least now we’re seeing signs of progress.