As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” moves from Columbus to Cleveland to discuss the arrival of J-Ram.
When you watch baseball, there are unquestioned stars, who possess the look and gifts that belong in the pantheon of sports. In Mike Trout, you have a quintessential player, who you can breathe “Mickey Mantle” in the same breath, and not be laughed off the planet. He hits. He fields. He throws. He runs. He’s the pure definition of a toolsy ballplayer. He does everything with the ability that was given to him from the gods.
There are also players that can’t be defined by their look. They are too short, and too stocky, and don’t have a perceived good arm, because they’ve never had to use it. They don’t walk enough, and don’t have a definitive place to play. Most scouts look at players like this and think of Jose Vizcaino or Wayne Kirby. They’re fine, but are just guys you can afford, who can play a bit.
But there are other players that take those same perceived lack of tools, and just find a way. Their sum is far greater than their perceptive parts, but often, those parts don’t seem to match anything but a utility player, but yet they’re more. Why? Because perception is often left to judgement, and not to the facts at hand.
In 2016, this player was Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez, carrying fire in his hair and thunder in his heart, actually started his 2016 American League onslaught on a cold and meaningless game late in the 2015 season. With the Indians leading the Minnesota Twins 7-1, JRam, as he’s become affectionately known to local Cleveland fans, as much for his Manny Ramirez-like attitude as for name convenience, had spent the entire 2015 season struggling to find the swagger that had allowed him to skyrocket through the Indians’ system. Then, he debuted as a 20-year old rookie, called up during the team’s 2013 playoff run. When he successfully replacing the traded Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop the following year, he made a clear case that he should be a regular in the line-up for years to come, and not just glue to fill the cracks until the much more heralded prospects earned their call-up.
But 2015 had been a wake-up call for JRam. Ramirez had started the season as the team’s starting shortstop, which put him in a strange sort-of limbo. With franchise player and shortstop of the future Francisco Lindor pounding on the Major League door, and with clubhouse leader Jason Kipnis cemented at second base, it was clear that performance or not, Ramirez just didn’t have a position. He was quite literally a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.
But people continued to ignore his age. Here was a 22-year old kid, who had always managed to add a John Wayne-like presence to his minute frame.
Who knows how this played in the head of the youngster in 2015, who had made his career by outperforming players scouts suggested were superior to him. Whatever the case, the player who once wore a fur coat in the Akron Aeros dugout, seemed to have lost his mojo. Ramirez was sent down the Columbus on June 6 in 2015, and when Lindor was called up a week later, the writing seemed to be on the wall: JRam’s smoke and mirrors had finally given way to the actual prospects. Even when JRam returned in early August that same season, playing slightly better, most had given up on him outside the organization, calling him trade bait, or maybe a utility player if he was lucky.
But it’s important to note here that the Cleveland Indians organization never thought this. Not once. Not ever.
But things changed on that late September 2015 night in Cleveland. It was on that night that Ramirez launched a three-run homer over the wall in right-center, and gazed at his work with his bat still in his hands. JRam, with a Thor-Like bat-flip as the ball cleared the wall, not only crushed the souls of the Minnesota Twins like a hammer from the gods, but sent Twins’ manager Paul Molitor and his coaching entourage into a near-dugout clearing frenzy. JRam, unwavered, circled the bases in what has become a familiar site for Indians’ fans, pounding each base for emphasis. He strolled into the dugout with a swagger that had been missing, and high-fived every player in the dugout as though he had just won the World Series. The only thing missing, was a fur coat.
How good was Jose Ramirez in 2016? Well, let’s start with the easy stuff. With the Indians in need of offensive help thanks to a persistent shoulder injury to their resident offensive anchor, Michael Brantley, Ramirez not only shouldered much of that load, but formed a near perfect facsimile of their hurt star’s production in previous years.
In 2015, Brantley had a .310/.379/.480 slash in 137 games, with 68 runs, 15 homers and 15 stolen bases. His K% was 8.3%, and his BB% was 10.1%, with a .318 BABIP, a 133 wRC+, and he was a 3.8 WAR player.
In 2016, Ramirez had a .312/.363/.462 slash in 152 games, with 84 runs, 11 homers and 22 stolen bases. His K% was 10.0%, and his BB% was 7.1%, with a .333 BABIP, a 122 wRC+, and he was a 4.8 WAR player.
He led Major League third basemen with that .312 batting average, as did his 10% K Rate. He helped lock down third base, a position that many thought was too much for him, because his arm was built for second. While Jose Uribe was a folky player past his prime, Jose Ramirez was a folky player who still hadn’t turned 24-years old.
But what really separated Ramirez from the pack for the Indians was that he not only was the glue player that many people predicted from the start, but he was that type of glue player that make people add the word uber to. He played left field, and while his routes looked like something you’d see in a Road Runner cartoon, he always used his overabundance of speed to over-compensate. He also played games at second base and shortstop, spelling Lindor and Kipnis, a skill that neither Kipnis and Lindor hold over their much less heralded infield mate.
It’s likely this mish-mosh of fielding that actually takes away from his fielding skill-set, since he wasn’t able to get comfortable at a position until he found his way to third base. While the metrics are mixed on his defensive ability at the hot corner, the eye test clearly showcased a player that once comfortable, wasn’t just a block of cement. As he’s shown at every position (including shortstop, for those that actually pay attention), his mobility and IQ, as well as a stronger-than-thought arm, make him a plus defender, especially with innings under his belt.
Adding Ramirez to the already loaded Indians infield with Lindor, Kipnis and the Carlos Santana/Mike Napoli platoon provided the team with a boost, even though it likely hurt the malleability that Terry Francona had in using Ramirez around the diamond. The fact that this didn’t hurt Ramirez’s value says a lot to the player that Ramirez truly is, and not the player that many fans had given up on after his struggling 2015 season.
But Jose Ramirez has never really been the guy the Indians saw in 2015, and they never really gave up on him, the way many of the fans did. He hit .325 in rookie ball, blasting onto the scene, and yet, the “experts” felt it was likely based on level. Then he hit a combined .354 at Low A Mahoning Valley, and Single A Lake County. The Indians had him skip High A Carolina, and sent the then-19-year-old straight to Double A.
Read that over again.
At 19, the Indians had him skip a level to Double A. They didn’t bump up their superstar, Francisco Lindor. They didn’t bump up some of their other, older players. And after some initial struggles with injury, Ramirez finished the season off strong, with a .272/.325/.362 slash, with a 7.3% BB% and a 7.7% KRate, and 38 stolen bases.
So, the Indians called him up to their big league club on August 31st, the day before September call-ups. While there are a myriad of ways to get around putting a player on the playoff roster if he’s been called up after September 1st, this ensured that he would be an option, should they need him, in the 2013 playoffs.
He was 20.
He never played a second in High A Carolina.
Oh, and did you notice he hadn’t played a second in Triple A Columbus either?
And yet, there were many that didn’t believe the Indians thought highly of him. “He had a chance to be an average every day major leaguer,” some said. “If he’s lucky, he can find time as a really good utility player, but not much more,” said others. “I mean, he only got bumped up so that Lindor could move freely behind him,” said even more.
Because, you know, the Indians make a habit of bumping up sub-20-year-olds because they are mediocre, before bringing them right up to the big league club, during a legit run at the pennant.
What the Indians have always done is trust their scouts, and their coaching staff. Once the front office took notice of this numbers-eating machine, they realized quickly that he fit the same mold as a player like Michael Brantley, but with slightly less power. The catch-22 with a guy like Ramirez, as he showcased in 2016, is that he can play really good defense, especially with a lot of reps.
What really separates Ramirez from what many saw were limitations, is that swagger that prompted him to eyeball that three-run blast against the Twins’ Ricky Nolasco, followed by that utterly stupendous bat flip. It’s that bravado that you see when he’s sitting in a dugout, wearing a fur coat, or applying the finishing touches to his flame colored hair tips. It’s the moxie that sends him hurtling down the basepaths like he was fired out of a gun, with his helmet constantly bounding off his head. It’s the enigmatic demeanor that has allowed him to take twitter by storm, creating a following second only to the Party at Napoli’s.
In the end, Jose Ramirez truly is greater than the sum of his parts, but what folks don’t realize, are that the parts that make up Jose Ramirez are already better than most. Like Manny Ramirez before him, he’s a baseball savant, that was built with the type of IQ that most work for years to acquire. Like Manny Ramirez before him, he is an enigma on and off the field, making head scratching decisions, that are often overcome by pure talent, energy, charisma and joy. Yet, JRam works at the game every day, of every year, still working out on the same Dominican fields that he grew up on, giving back to the kids in his old neighborhood.
It’s this mystical combination that likely made Ramirez arguably the teams Most Valuable Player in 2016, and had the city of Cleveland pronouncing a new era in Indians’ baseball: the era of #JRamForever.