NEW YORK – Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo had the same daily message for Jose Ramirez while the infielder worked through his first-half slump.
“I told him, ‘I feel like every day I feel like this is going to be the day you get out of it,’ ” Van Burkleo said recently while the Indians played the Mets at Citi Field. “It was not like he was so far away from being where he needed to be or I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew it would happen eventually. [Terry Francona] stuck with him. It’s what you got to do, you got to grind it out.”
Van Burkleo and others believed Ramirez has simply been too good for too long for the third baseman not to eventually rebound, and the Indians were rewarded once the second half began with Ramirez reverting to form.
Ramirez has slashed .327/.363/.705/1.068 to help the Indians close in on the Twins, and that OPS is 10th-highest among players with at least 75 second-half at-bats.
That torrid production is what makes it all the more painful for the Indians that they now will have to try to earn a postseason spot without Ramirez for the foreseeable future. Ramirez suffered fractured hamate bone in his right hand Saturday that requires surgery, and it could cost him the rest of the regular season.
An Indians lineup that is not all that deep will now be absent a premier player.
“We need him,” Indians first baseman Carlos Santana said of Ramirez three days before he suffered the injury.
The Indians (76-55) entered Monday with a half-game lead on the Rays for the first AL wild card spot, and one game ahead of the Athletics – who are even in the loss column – for a playoff spot. They are 3.5 games behind the Twins in the AL Central.
The wild card and AL Central battles should be entertaining races, and the Indians will find out if they have enough offense to stay afloat while Ramirez is sidelined.
This season has essentially been a tale of two halves for the third baseman, with Ramirez producing like a backup catcher in the first half and swinging the bat in the second half like the MVP candidate he he has been the past two years.
After posting a .948 OPS spanning the 2017-18 seasons and finishing third in the MVP voting each year, Ramirez slashed just .218/.308/.344/.652 in the first half.
The confounding part of Ramirez’s numbers was there were not many red flags aside from a .234 batting average on balls in play. Ramirez did hit more ground balls and chase more compared to 2018, but his hard-hit percentage was in line.
“Baseball players are based on results, but I knew I was making good contact and the ball was flying and was coming off my bat the right way,” Ramirez told Yahoo Sports via Indians translator Agustin Rivero. “The results will come at some point.”
Though Ramirez did not offer any concrete reasons for his early struggles, his hitting coach and manager pointed to his mechanics being slightly off.
Francona noted that Ramirez, a switch-hitter who pulls the ball in almost 50 percent of his at-bats, would pull three or four balls into the stands during a game.
He couldn’t keep those balls fair.
Van Burkleo added that Ramirez was a smidge late in his swing and dragged the head of the bat, resulting in him flying open too early and getting under balls.
“It was pretty subtle,” Van Burkleo explained of Ramirez’s mechanics, “but for the most part, it was a little more pull from the front side and not really getting the back side working into the baseball the way you get the barrel behind it quicker.”
Ramirez said he did not make any drastic changes and just kept plugging along, and his luck eventually changed.
Since the second half began July 12, Ramirez transformed back into a terrorizing hitter and helped fuel this Indians run that had them briefly atop the AL Central .
A closer look at the numbers reveals that Ramirez increased his line-drive percentage, hard-hit percentage, contact percentage and BABIP, according to Fangraphs.com. He decreased his ground-ball percentage and soft-hit percentage.
“I know at some point the results start showing. I never felt a difference in my swing. I knew things were working, I knew I was doing my right approach. The results weren’t showing up,” Ramirez said via Rivero last week at Citi Field. “I was doing the same job and adjustments every game.”
As Ramirez downplayed any mechanical tweaks, his manager believes that the difference could stem from an uptick in confidence.
“His confidence had taken a hit there for a while there. He had been one of the best players in the game and went 400-500 at-bats having a tough time,” Francona said reference Ramirez’s slow finish in 2018. “Now, all of a sudden, he’s kinda feeling it again and it gives our team a different gear having him back like that.”
To hear Francona describe Ramirez in such terms showcases how the Indians are not just going to be able to follow the “next man up” mantra in replacing Ramirez.
You can’t just replace an elite hitter.
“It’s definitely important having him swing the bat the way he can,” Van Burkleo said before Ramirez suffered the injury.
Cleveland’s schedule is not that brutal, with 15 games remaining against teams above .500, including six with the Twins and a season-ending series against the Nationals, but they also have 16 games left against teams below .500.
Fangraphs.com gives them a 76.6 percent of making the playoffs.
In some ways, Ramirez’s season has reflected the Indians.
While he struggled in the first half, they fell 11 games behind Minnesota. They’ve closed the gap in the second half with Ramirez leading the way.
Ramirez dismissed the idea that his hot streak has resulted in the Indians taking off, and now his teammates will learn if they can stay afloat without their scariest bat.
“This is a team effort,” Ramirez said via Rivero last week. “We’re playing really good baseball and it’s not just me, a lot of players coming through together.”
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