Dodgers' Ramirez has returned as a tough out

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ATLANTA - Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint exact causes for a hitter's turnaround at the plate. Sometimes it hits you right in the face.

 

For Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the obviousness is as aggressive as the cause.

 

Ramirez has bumped his numbers all the way to .345/.402/.638 with a .442 wOBA, 191 wRC+, 20 home runs, 10 stolen bases and an 8 percent walk rate in 336 plate appearances. His extreme numbers vaulted his fWAR to 5.1 in only 86 games, tied for highest among Dodgers position players.

 

A key reason for the turnaround from a year ago, when he managed a .322 on-base percentage and relied on 24 home runs to stay above average, is a notable increase in aggressiveness at the plate.

 

The 29-year-old Dominican has the highest swing percentage of his career this season at 52 percent. His career average is 44 percent.

 

He's swinging at the highest rate of his career both inside and outside the zone and, coupled with an increase in zone contact at 92 percent, he's putting tons more balls in play. It also shows in the strikeout percentage, which is at its lowest since 2010.

 

Also as a result is a career-high line drive percentage at 22 percent. Ramirez has never produced high line drive rates, and he has been putting the ball on the ground at an increasingly high rate over the past few years, but that turned around quickly in 2013, and he's reaping the benefits.

 

And this begins a trend in the numbers. Opposing pitchers are seemingly playing to Ramirez's strengths this season, as he's getting the most off-speed pitches - most notably changeups - since 2009. In turn, he's hitting the most line drives on those pitches since 2009. Ramirez is seeing more changeups, and he's hitting them harder, thus the big increase in overall line drives.

 

It's not just off-speed pitches that Ramirez is drilling, however, as his line drive rate on fastballs and breaking balls has equally increased. But a batter sees more fastballs than any other pitch, and it's easier to avoid throwing secondaries to a batter if a pitcher can command the fastball well.

 

So what do you do to avoid getting hit by Ramirez? His 2013 zone map doesn't say much other than keep it up and in so he can't get the barrel to it. He can still get the barrel to inside stuff, especially low and in, but up and in has been one of his few weaknesses. His opposite-field approach shows in the map, as he covers the outer half well, especially low and away, and he can do it with power.

 

For a pitcher like Medlen, who relies on the changeup to a great extent, the map says keep the pitch either up and in or up and away. It's dangerous to play that game on an off-speed pitch, but Medlen's four-seam change is the perfect type of changeup to do it. The key is to establish the fastball on the same plane without getting drilled for it.

 

Bottom line: Ramirez is a great hitter who is having an outstanding season at the plate. There aren't supposed to be big holes to exploit when a great hitter is doing this. That's what makes them a great hitter. But if Medlen can throw a fastball/changeup combination with tons of confidence and command to Ramirez, and be careful not to throw get-me-over pitches early in the count, he can win the battle.

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