Indians, WWW

The Ballad of Jose Ramirez: While We’re Waiting

(photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Several baseball scouts walked onto a weed-riddled, rock-infested baseball field in Boca Chita, Dominican Republic. They sidestepped a few roaming donkeys, rolled up their sleeves, and made their way through the rickety facility to watch a group of unsigned prospects from a small town called Bani’. Out came the notebooks, the charts, perhaps a pocket radar gun, as they all readied themselves for another long day in the heat of the Caribbean.

Scouting in the Dominican Republic meant hours and hours on these sand-covered fields, watching players that had dreamed of following in the footsteps of former Dominican-greats such as Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, and Manny Ramirez. Those very players had earned their first professional contracts playing in very same “Prospect League Games” that the scouts were now attending, set up to showcase the elite players the island has to offer.

“Jose Ramirez was not one of those (elite) guys,” said John Mirabelli, in an interview with The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto two years ago. “He was a fill-in when someone else couldn’t play and they needed another guy. I was watching this game with (then-Cleveland Indians scout) Ramon Pena, and Jose was playing second base,” Mirabelli told Pluto.

Pena had invited the free agents to the three game series in the hope of uncovering another star player. He also invited several other scouts to this showcase, who were all salivating over shortstop Martin Esteilon Peguero and a Colombian catcher, Jorge Alfaro.1 Ramirez, all 5’8″ and 140 pounds, wasn’t on anyone’s radar, not the scouts, and not even the local trainer that was there acting as the player’s agent.

On that day in Boca Chita, Jose Ramirez started off the day as that kid in line that was afraid of being picked last. But if you know JRam at all, he didn’t care, and it would be the last time JRam would finish last in anything.

**********

What I want you to do is close your eyes, clear your minds, and then start filling it with all of those Cleveland Indians’ greats. Think about those stories that your grandfathers told, and the great writers of our generation put down in words in our local newspapers. Think about the players that always found themselves surrounded by great moments, towering home runs, World Series victories, amazing catches, and phenomenal base-running. After a minute or two, open up your eyes, and think about those historical names that filled your thoughts.

While the Fellers and the Klubers most certainly popped into your “All-Time” conversation, let’s focus our thoughts on those position players that play every day. Think of those players that left an indelible mark on what Cleveland Indians’ baseball is today. Think of those players that were so special, they still are being talked about at every game that takes place today, on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

You probably immediately thought of Jim Thome, who just this past weekend was enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. If you thought about Thome, you probably then thought about his peers on those great 90’s teams, such as Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton. Those 90s teams for every generation, are the status quo in which all other teams seem to be compared to.

Some of you historians probably immediately jumped to the “player manager” era. Lou Boudreau and Tris Speaker both carried that title, both were considered one of the best of their generation, both are in the Hall of Fame, and both brought the city their only two World Series Championships. Napolean Lajoie is another one that carries that player manager title, who is in many ways, the grandfather of Cleveland Baseball…the “Babe Ruth” of Cleveland, who not only was the first great Cleveland baseball player since the turn of the 20th century, but had the entire franchise nicknamed after him.

Peppered in there with all of those greats previously mentioned are special careers and seasons and names that will always stand out in our minds from stories once told, or from nights spent rooting on our baseball heroes. Names such as Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played in Cleveland long before the Black Sox scandal of 1919, or Ray Chapman, who died on the field during that 1920 World Series run, or Al Rosen, who won the 1953 American League MVP award, or even Grady Sizemore, who brought a power/speed/defense blend that had never before been seen on the North Coast.

Every one of those players, and several more before and since, live in the foundation of great baseball played at League Park, or Municipal Stadium, or Jacobs/Progressive Field.

Now clear your mind once more, and let it fill up with one more name.

Jose Ramirez.

#JRam

#JRaMVP

#JRamForever

You see, not only is JRam a part of that conversation when discussing the Indians’ All-Time great seasons, but by the end of 2018, Jose Ramirez may be knocking down the doors of the entire Cleveland baseball foundation.

I know, it sounds like hyperbole, right. But here’s where it gets sort of surreal.

IT. ISN’T. HYPERBOLE.

Ramirez is doing the sorts of things that almost every player mentioned above did in their heyday.

Do you want power, like the behemoth home run hitters such as Thome, Rosen, Ramirez, and Belle? Fine, Ramirez is currently tied for the league lead with 32 homers, and tied for 12th in the league with 29 doubles. He leads the league in extra base hits overall, with 64, two ahead of his teammate, Francisco Lindor.

Do you want speed, like Lofton, Sizemore, and Shoeless Joe? Ramirez is tied for third in steals in all of Major League Baseball with 25, and should become the third Indians player to join the 30-30 club (Sizemore and Joe Carter), and has an outside shot at becoming the first Indians’ player to join the 40-40 club.

Do you want defense, like Lofton, Sizemore, or Boudreau? Ramirez is top five in almost every single stat or metric at third base that you can come up with, and it’s his second best position. He’s top five in UZR, UZR/100, DRS, Fielding Percentage, and defensive fWAR, and if you watch him play third, he more than passes the eye-test too.

How about fun?

Just click the link…I dare you. It’s a rabbit hole you REALLY WANT to find yourself falling into. While you can argue about whether or not his smile is as big as Lindor’s, I’m not sure there is a player that is more fun that Jose Ramirez.

And when you take all of that in, all of the performance on the field, and the attitude in the dugout, and the player that has taken Cleveland, if not the world, by story, you realize that Jose Ramirez is doing things that only a few have before him.

Now it’s at this point that you want to quantify it. You want to know where JRam stands in today’s game, and perhaps even historically. Remember, we did just think about the greatest position players in Indians’ history, and obviously, this writer is going to attempt to go there, and likely in a really clunky fashion. There really isn’t a perfect statistic to use, because it’s hard to quantify how everything is put together. Defensive measures aren’t great, and eye tests aren’t to be trusted.

If you understand WAR, any of the WAR versions really, whether it be fWAR or bWAR, your whatever WAR you’ve created in your head, it should never be used simply as a single year tool…so that’s exactly what I’m going to do, for today’s purposes, because there just isn’t anything else that’s close to employing the entire game of baseball into one metric…or one statistic. It’s not perfect, but that’s really what makes the game of baseball perfect, right? The debate on “who’s best,” and who isn’t.

League-wide, it’s easily to say that Jose Ramirez is one of the top two baseball players in the league. JRam currently has an fWAR and bWAR of 7.3, which places him second at both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, behind the prototype, Mike Trout. I would then argue, that at JRam’s size quotient, he’s the best player, pound-for-pound, and don’t at me, that’s just how this works. I’m sure that there is likely someone in Boston who has created their own WAR, which we’ll call it, in my best Boston accent “wickedWAR,” who will say Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez are both better, but this year, they just aren’t.

But not only is JRam in that “this year” conversation, but it’s when we look at the History of the Indians organization, that we really realize just how great Ramirez is. You see, there isn’t really a comparison for the type of player that Ramirez is. But when you look at where Ramirez stands amongst the all-time Indians, with 55-games left in the season, you realize that this season, and this career, will put Ramirez into a special conversation.

How great is this current Jose Ramirez season?

Single Season fWAR leaders:

Right now, Jose Ramirez has the 23rd best fWAR season in Indians’ history, with 55 games left in the season. This puts JRam on pace to set the Indians fWAR record. No, it’s not a perfect, or even a good way to measure a singular season, but it does put into context the all around game that JRam has, and the all around, historic season that JRam is putting together.

Contextually, there are only three seasons since the turn of the millennium on this list, and one of those he’s currently tied with. There are only six seasons ahead of JRam that happened after Lou Boudreau’s history 1948 season, and only five players, with Sizemore on there twice. In other words, since most of us have been alive, there haven’t been many seasons to compare with the current Jose Ramirez season.

There are only 12 players ahead of him on that list, with several players listed multiple times. Lou Boudreau, Nap Lajoie, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, and Tris Speaker are all Hall of Famers. Shoeless Joe would be, but was banned from the game. Manny Ramirez would be, but writers won’t let him because of PED use. Craig Nettles shouldn’t be, but is one of the top four or five defensive third basemen in the history of baseball, and played in six All-Star games over his career. Grady Sizemore’s career was derailed by injuries, but he still made three All Star games in his prime. Ray Chapman may or may not have made it to the hall, but he was killed on the field, and Terry Turner played in 1906.

As far as third basemen go, on the fWAR list, the only players ahead of JRam at third base are Thome’s 1996 (yep, mostly at third), Craig Nettles in 1971, and Al Rosen in 1953. He’s fourth at the position All-Time, with 55 games left.

If you want to take it even further, using baseball references sortable statistics2, Jose Ramirez is currently tied for 96th all-time with a 7.2 bWAR.

Here’s the top of that list.

The problem with this version of the list is that it includes every player that played even one game at third base. On JRam’s side, Don Mattingly was predominantly a first baseman in 1986, and on the top end, Willie Mays obviously wasn’t a third baseman (played  an inning there, per Bodhi…I didn’t check), and Nap Lajoie only played 15 games there in 1906.

So I set the parameters for all time bWAR seasons at third base as 90% at the position. I could probably set it higher, but 90% is a fair measure. I also excluded seasons prior to 1903, so we’re just looking at the “World Series” era.

This gets really interesting.

JRam currently has the 65th best season all time for a third baseman.

Here’s the top of the list, and all the players with a 9.0 bWAR or above.

It’s easy to pace out JRam’s year somewhere above 9.0, at the very least, which puts him into some exclusive company. Again, JRam is fourth on the list here of All-Time single season third baseman, behind Rosen, Thome, and Nettles. He could pass two of those players, on both lists, by Monday, if not sooner.

So regardless of which way you look at it, JRam’s 2018 season is a great one, and in many ways, already historic, both at the local level, and also at the Major League level. If all factors remain somewhat constant, Jose Ramirez is on pace to have one of the greatest seasons as a third baseman…

…ever.

Pace rarely meets reality, but you just never know with a guy like Jose Ramirez, because nobody he’s been breaking the ceiling of expectations since day one.

*********

It’s almost hilarious that when you think about five-tool baseball players, you likely don’t put that unicorn-like phrase with Jose Ramirez’s picture. You likely think of the more prototypical Mike Trout, who at 6’2″ and 240 pounds, just looks the part. Hell, if you think about the Indians, you might force your brain into thinking about Francisco Lindor first, who from the second he was drafted by the Indians in 2011, became in many ways, the face and future of Cleveland baseball…and this is in no way a knock on Lindor…because in many ways…he is the face of this franchise.

And while many in Cleveland see Jose Ramirez as overcoming Lindor as that “face,” I’ve always looked at JRam as something a little bit different. He’s always sort of been the bedrock to me, the foundation of the team, that just does everything, right when you need him to.

And that’s likely what Roman Pena saw that fateful day, almost ten years ago, while he was scouting players with John Mirabelli on that scruffy field in the Dominican Republic. While players like Peguero and Alfaro were busy getting their million dollar paydays, Ramirez was just busy playing the game at full tilt. He didn’t care that he was smaller than everyone else. He didn’t care that he was older than everyone else. He didn’t care that he was a fill in.

He just played.

The normal signing bonus for a Dominican signee usually comes in at $200,000, but JRam signed for only $50,000, and was happy.

He just played.

When he couldn’t play in 2010 because he couldn’t provide the legal papers to finalize his deal, he just waited until 2011, and hit .325 in his short season New York/Penn league debut.

He just played.

When he was sent to the minors in 2014, after struggling with the realization that his stint at shortstop was only a place-holder for the much more heralded Lindor, he ended up back with the team by the end of the year, and never looked back.

He just played.

Jose Ramirez has become one of the best baseball players not only in the Majors, but his numbers are starting to breach Cleveland Indians’ greatness.

He just keeps playing, and never…ever…looks back.

  1. both of whom would eventually sign for over $1 million each with the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers, respectively. The 24-year old Peguero’s career stalled in High A after the 2015 season, while Alfaro was eventually traded to the Phillies in the 2015 Cole Hamels deal, and is currently their starting catcher []
  2. I hate multiple footnotes, but this is when I reference the fact that I was done with this piece, until I saw a super-secret conversation on WFNY’s slack channel in which Bodhi was using baseball reference to project JRam’s season…and I just couldn’t pass it up to root around…so footnote #2…and another hour []