Last year there were many people in and around the game of baseball, myself included, who felt like Alexei Ramirez should have won the Gold Glove at shortstop in the American League. Ramirez had the best defensive year of his career, making both the spectacular and routine plays on a regular basis. He posted the best fielding percentage of his career and was the best fielder on a team that committed the fewest errors and allowed the fewest unearned runs in the American League. The White Sox defense was a key part of why they spent most of the season in first place in the AL Central.
What a difference a year makes.
This year Ramirez has struggled mightily at shortstop and the White Sox have long since surpassed their error and unearned run totals of a year ago. The Sox have played poor defense all season long, which coupled with an inconsistent offense, has wasted solid performances by the pitching staff time and again and is a large part of why the White Sox sit in last place in the AL Central.
Exactly how bad has Ramirez been this year? In order to know the answer to that we must go back and look at Alexei’s performance the last several years.
From 2009-2012 Alexei Ramirez played 5,444.1 innings at shortstop, more than any other player in Major League Baseball. The next closest player is Elvis Andrus, 320 innings behind Ramirez. Over that stretch Ramirez had the third highest UZR or ultimate zone rating, which ranks his double plays, range and errors and how they relate to runs above the average fielder. It’s more or less fielding WAR. Ramirez’s total UZR from 09-12 was 32.8 or about 8.2 per season. Only Brendan Ryan and JJ Hardy had a higher total UZR and both those guys played more than a 1000 fewer innings at shortstop. It could be argued that over the last four seasons, Ramirez was one of, if not the best fielding shortstop in baseball.
"We need a live rooster to take the curse off Alexei's glove."
This year Ramirez has a UZR of 5.5, a drop off of 2.7 from his career average, and ranks 7th in MLB. He has already tied his career high in errors at 20 and barring a miracle will set a new career high. He is on pace for 27 errors, which would more than double last season’s total of 12 miscues.
Here is the really scary part. According to Chris Kamka at Comcast SportsNet, Alexei Ramirez errors have led to roughly 23 unearned runs this season. I say roughly because several times this year the White Sox Bad News Bears-esque defense has committed multiple errors in the same inning leading to unearned runs so it is tough to know for sure. Still, using the estimated number of 23 unearned runs, Alexei Ramirez has accounted for 43% of the White Sox total unearned runs for the season. You think that’s bad? It gets worse. At this rate each Ramirez error leads to about 1.15 runs. That means that if Ramirez commits 27 errors, which is what he is on pace for, he will account for 31 unearned runs, more than the entire team allowed last year.
Obviously the pitchers have to shoulder some of the blame by not being able to pitch over the mistakes but let’s be honest, there have been way too many mistakes to pitch over this season.
Why the sudden drop off by Ramirez? It’s hard to say. He is still getting to balls and making plays that few other shortstops can make, which is one of the reasons his UZR isn’t lower this year. The problem has been the routine plays or trying to do too much. Ramirez had some high error totals before, committing 20 errors in in 2009 and 2010 but had cut his error totals down each year in 2011 and 2012. For reference, Jose Valentin AVERAGED 23 errors a season during his tenure with the White Sox. The difference to me was that Ramirez was making fewer errors on routine plays. The skills are still there which is why I believe this has to be a mental issue with Alexei. There have been several games this year where he commits an error, usually that leads to a run, and then just cannot get his head back in the game and commits another error. The fact that the team is playing so poorly and was out of the race so early this year is also a factor, in my opinion. Whatever the reason, it is most likely an issue between the ears. The question is whether or not Ramirez can put this season aside and move forward.