Indians, Top 10 Cleveland Sports Stories of 2018

The JRam-Lindor Experience: Top Stories of 2018 – No. 7

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 2018. Our “Best of 2018” rolls on as we start to count down the top 10 stories of the year.

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe with any sense of clarity. Francisco Lindor’s swing is a cultivated whip, a swing built to hone in on the zone and produce to a deadly effect. Jose Ramirez’s swing is the jackhammer, a corkscrew of motion that confounds perfection, yet is just that. Lindor’s world-class defense has a degree of execution is beyond belief, diving up the middle to snatch a sure single away, followed by a diminutive flipping of the ball from his glove to Ramirez at second to start a 5-4-3 double play. Ramirez is the flexible wunderkind, barehanding slow rollers at third, or backhanding high choppers up the middle at second.

Their anticipation is out-of-this-world, their footwork natural and reactionary, as if they were born to play this game from the second they stepped foot on this earth. It’s certainly not out of the realm of conceivability to think that they are the best in the game at what they do.

Both play with an unbridled joy that adults should showcase in a game for kids, but strive for greatness in a manner that all eventual Hall of Famers exhibit throughout their careers. The joy bleeds through daily, while the fortitude provides the backbone for their baseball supremacy.

While all of this is true, none of the words evokes the experience of watching these two play. Of conjuring up, first-hand, the artistry of how they play the game. In the end, the words supplied to describe each player provides us with “talking around” points, to try and define their play in what they are not, so we can watch in amazement at what they are.

Much like in 2017, 2018 was a season in which both Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor made a claim for the American League MVP. Much like in 2017, 2018 was a season in which they would fall short in said claim and yet could make a case that their 2018 seasons were far and away the best of their already stellar young careers.

Jose Ramirez: Flirting with Immortality

Jose Ramirez’s journey to the top of the game has been a long and winding road for sure. Never expected to be one of the best, he was always treated as a second-rate prospect prior to his tenure with the Indians. In the Dominican Republic, he was never a guy you had to see but always ended up being the guy that you saw. With the Indians, he was never rated as a top five prospect by most top publications, until his performance was showcased at the big league level. He was too small, or too weak, or too log-jammed at every position.

While working at Indians Baseball Insider, every scout I talked to, in Akron, Carolina, Lake County, and Mahoning Valley all said the same sort of thing, “Jose Ramirez is one of our top three prospects, and if we didn’t have Lindor, he’d be our top prospect.”

How good was Ramirez in the minors? With second base clogged at the big league level with a long-term signed Jason Kipnis, the Indians moved him to a flex position that included shortstop. He skipped High A Carolina, after playing the 2012 season with Lindor at Lake County, and moved to Double-A Akron ahead of Lindor.

He debuted for the Indians that same season, without playing a game at High A, or Triple-A.

The Indians rarely skip levels for players, even when there are logjams. They are methodical about bringing up their prospects, but Ramirez was definitely different, ready for the rigors of higher levels.

I mention all of this because Ramirez was almost always defined as a player beneath the talent level of Francisco Lindor. This isn’t a knock on any scouts, front office personnel, or the media. Lindor is truly a generational talent and was looked that way from the day his cleats stepped foot on a baseball diamond. Ramirez didn’t have the pedigree outside of the organization, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have the pedigree.

In 2017, Jose Ramirez nearly won the American League MVP. He finished third, but his season was such a surprise. I was eating lunch in an Atlanta diner in September of 2017, and struck up a conversation with an Atlanta Braves fan. His first question to me once he found out I was an Indians fan was, “who is this Martinez guy?” After a few minutes of trying to figure out who he was talking about, we landed on JRam. But that’s Jose’s story…even now.

The diminutive third baseman…or second baseman…and former shortstop…hasn’t made a big name for himself outside of Cleveland, except for the baseball purists. Perhaps it’s Cleveland. Perhaps it’s the fact that national pundits didn’t know who he was heading into his pro career. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t look like a player who has hit 68 home runs over the past two seasons. But after 2018, his second season in a row finishing in the top three of the MVP voting, JRam has cemented himself as a baseball superstar.

And 2018 was almost a perfect season. On August 3, 2018, I wrote a piece discussing Jose Ramirez’s historic season. At the time, JRam ranked 23rd all-time on the all-time fWAR list with 55 games left in the season. If he carried that current pace, he had an outside shot at passing the vaunted 10 fWAR mark, of which only one position player has surpassed in Indians’ history (Lou Boudreau in 1948’s World Series run).

But JRam, like Icarus, flew far too close to the sun, and the bottom fell out of his 2018 season.

courtesy of Fangraphs

Ramirez finished the season with an 8 fWAR, and while his performance peaked in the heat of the summer, it’s not hard to think that there’s an even better season out there, even if projections don’t showcase that potential. And according to that 8 fWAR, Ramirez had the 12th best season in the history of the Indians. The players ahead of him were Lou Boudreau, Trip Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Al Rosen, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Terry Turner.

Not bad company indeed.

Francisco Lindor: Consistent Excellence

It’s hard to believe that Lindor might not be the best player on this team because he’s an elite baseball player. From the second the Lindor joined the Indians organization, he was the top prospect in the system, and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. From the second that Lindor moved up to every level, he was considered the star of that team, and for good reason…

…he was the star of that team.

When I was covering the Carolina Mudcats, the buzz of his joining the team was palpable all throughout the 2012 season, and when the 2013 season started, it seemed that it was just a matter of time before he jumped to Double-A Akron. It was all for good reason. I’d seen better seasons by players in High A Kinston/Carolina over the years, but Lindor was nearly the complete baseball package then, that he is now.

I only mention this because it’s really easy to take for granted how good Lindor is, and how much further he has to grow in the coming years.

Even Jose Ramirez’s emergence has masked the growth of Lindor’s development over the past four seasons that Lindor has been a part of the Cleveland Indians Major League baseball club. Lindor has improved his walk rate from 6.2% in 2015, to 8.3% in 2016 and 2017, to 9.4% in 2018, while virtually maintaining his K% at a still low 14.4%. His fWAR has climbed in all four seasons and reached 7.6 this past year, and it certainly feels like there’s a lot of room to grow.

He’s the unquestioned leader of the team. While folks will point to the veterans that have ruled over the Indians’ court over the years, it’s hard to fathom that anyone commands more attention than the affable Lindor, who has worked as an intermediary of sorts in the locker room over the past couple of seasons.

This was brought to light last year when Yandy Diaz used Lindor to have a meeting with Terry Francona. Players feel comfortable around Lindor, and he carries himself with the ease of a Team Captain. I’ve often wondered how the true veterans of the team deal with that, a youngster like Lindor taking over the mantle of team leader, at least perceptively, before he turned 25.

Regardless of that grey area, Lindor’s power production continued to rise, as he hit 38 bombs this year, nearly catching Jose Ramirez’s 39. He stole 25 bases, his career high, and continued his defensive dominance. Which is an interesting discussion in and of itself. Lindor’s ability to get to baseballs up the middle, and deep to his right, then get enough on the throw to nail runners is something to truly behold. I’m not sure there’s ever been a shortstop in Cleveland with Lindor’s arm or his range. I’m an unadulterated Omar Vizquel fan, but Lindor brings more to the table defensively, simply because he can get to baseballs that Omar couldn’t have dreamed of reaching. This isn’t a knock on Omar, but major praise to Lindor.

Lindor finished the season sixth in MVP voting, after finishing fifth last season. In his four full seasons, he’s now finished top 10 in MVP voting in three of those four seasons, and at 25, I doubt we’ve seen his best yet. And while that’s still likely to come, what we’re currently seeing is still some of the best baseball ever seen in Cleveland’s long baseball history.

*********

It’s hard to know if Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez will finish their careers in Cleveland. Lindor has three more seasons of arbitration before he can become a free agent, and his asking price will be somewhere among the biggest contracts in the history of the game, or at least that seems likely. Jose Ramirez signed was seemed to be a bargain of a contract at the time, and has proven to be just that, as Ramirez has continued to grow on a plane even beyond Lindor, and is wrapped up through his next five seasons, should the Indians pick up his club options.

But regardless of where their future lies, either in Cleveland or beyond, what we’ve seen so far has been nothing short of excellence. Rarely has a player met the grand expectations of Lindor or exceeded them like JRam. Rarely has a player shown the unbridled joy of these two, nor the intensity.

But to put it to words?

Genius and inspiration, often go hand-in-hand, and while the former is hard to duplicate, the latter often brings along a domino effect that helps embolden those with equal ingenuity. To put it to words will never reach the platitudes of the actual work, but to just see it, up close and personal, the power…and aggression…and pure joy of the game that JRam and Lindor bring to Progressive Field year-after-year, allows us to feel that inspiration too…

…regardless of how fleeting it may be.