Ramirez thriving as Indians' 'protection hitter'

Ramirez thriving as Indians' 'protection hitter'

CLEVELAND -- Jose Ramirez has a natural strut in his step. The Indians' versatile utility man carries himself like a much larger man than the short, stocky player he is for Cleveland.

This season, Ramirez has been posting numbers that have matched the hitch in his walk. He has a way of igniting a rally or keeping one going, and Indians manager Terry Francona has rewarded Ramirez with a regular place in the fifth spot of the lineup, even if the switch-hitter might not look the part.

"He's really good protection for the guys in the middle," Francona said. "He may not look like it in stature, but he'll give you a good at-bat, and I think that's very important sitting there."

One thing Francona loves in a "protection hitter" is the ability to consistently make contact. That is one reason the manager has often referred to Detroit's Victor Martinez as the best fit for that role in baseball. Francona also sees similarities in Ramirez. Cleveland's utility man might not boast the same kind of power, but he bats from both sides and consistently puts the ball in play.

Heading into Sunday's game, Ramirez's 87.3 contact percentage led Indians hitters and ranked ninth in the American League. His 87.1 contact rate when swinging at pitches outside the strike zone led all qualified hitters in the Majors. Ramirez's 9.2 strikeout percentage was also among the best in the game, ranking third in the big leagues.

"As you're coming through the middle of the order," Francona said, "those guys are going to be on base the most. Having somebody that's going to put up a good at-bat and hit the ball in the gaps, I think is very important. A little bit of a connector to the rest of the order."

Through 41 games played this season, Ramirez has turned in a .309/.375/.456 slash line in 153 plate appearances while offering a defensive option for second base, shortstop, third base and left field. That is a dramatic contrast to the start of last year, when Ramirez hit .180/.247/.240 in his first 170 plate appearances before being sent back to Triple-A Columbus.

"To tell you the truth, I'm really doing the same thing," Ramirez said through team translator Anna Bolton earlier this weekend. "I worked really hard in the Dominican in the offseason, and I feel really good about myself. I've been doing the same thing."

Ramirez has backed up Francona's faith, posting a .393 average with runners in scoring position (34 plate appearances) and a .421 mark with RISP and two outs (20 plate appearances). Also, dating back to Aug. 1 of last season, Ramirez ranked third on the Indians with an .801 OPS (min. 200 at-bats), entering Sunday. Francisco Lindor (.873) and Michael Brantley (.857) ranked first and second, respectively.

"That's why we're hitting him fifth," Francona said. "I don't think he looks like the prototype No. 5 hitter, but that's what our thinking is. If there's runners on base, he's going to give you a good at-bat."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.