José Ramírez Is Baseball’s Least-Appreciated Superstar
The title of baseball’s best player is open to a lot of interpretation, and there’s never one right answer. Sure, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout has been the usual choice for the better part of a decade now, thanks to his historically dominant early career stats. But we laid out the case last week for Mookie Betts of the L.A. Dodgers, whose numbers are as good or better than Trout’s over the past handful of seasons. You might also advocate for Aaron Judge, who is having an unbelievable season for the New York Yankees, or for the Angels’ two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani — whose 2021 season was unlike anything we’d seen in a century — or even for defending National League MVP Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies, the only player other than Trout and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera to win multiple MVP awards over the past decade.
All of those names are generally mentioned in conversations about baseball’s best. But one player is all too frequently absent, despite producing as much value as just about anyone: Cleveland Guardians third baseman José Ramírez.
According to wins above replacement,1 Ramírez ranks third (behind only Betts and Trout) in total WAR since the 2017 season.2 And yet, U.S. Google Trends search data3 suggests that Ramírez has garnered much less attention than practically any of his peers over that span:
Among the top 10 players since 2017 by WAR, Ramírez is easily the least-searched for; he also has the eighth-fewest searches among the top 40 overall despite, again, ranking third in WAR among that group. Ramírez, who is from the Dominican Republic, fares ever-so-slightly better relative to other stars in a worldwide trends search, and there is polling suggesting he may be more well-known than his meager Google traffic would indicate. But it remains true that Ramírez is overlooked far too much for how great of a player he is.
It could be because Ramírez has never had that one, runaway-MVP type of season to cement his status among baseball’s top superstars. While his WAR does rank highly across the past five seasons and change, Ramírez has never finished higher than sixth among all players in any individual season or among the top three batters. (Ramírez does have a No. 2 MVP finish to his name, though it came in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.) Instead, his value has been about accumulation; Ramírez is the only player to rank among the top 10 in total WAR — batting or pitching — five different times since 2017 (including 2022). Aside from a down (by his standards) 2019 campaign, Ramírez has been a model of consistent performance, year in and year out. But the downside of consistency is that, sometimes, it can be easy to take for granted.
Ramírez may also be ignored because he is a unique talent who doesn’t fit the typical mold of an MLB slugger. He’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, and his mix of defense, base running and contact-hitting ability is comparable to other tiny-but-talented infielders from throughout baseball history — but hardly any of those guys were also able to smash the ball with great power. Ramírez, meanwhile, has averaged 28 home runs per 162 games in his career to go with a .280 batting average, a .357 on-base percentage and 26 steals per 162. All of this makes him something of a unicorn in today’s game: a pint-sized, speedy third baseman who doesn’t strike out … and yet has the power of a much more hulking player.
That profile has been evolving, too. In the past, Ramírez was at the forefront of a generation of smallish hitters who derived their surprising power numbers from loading up to pull the ball at the expense of using the whole field. From 2017 through 2021, the switch-hitting Ramírez was MLB’s fifth-most pull-heavy hitter and its fourth-least likely to hit the ball up the middle. Not every batter needs to be like J.D. Martinez or Mike Piazza, both of whom were known to slug for big power to the opposite field, but it can be limiting to use a comparatively narrow slice of the diamond to do your damage, even when you do hit from both sides of the plate. (In his career, Ramírez’s OPS has been 56 percent lower than usual when going the opposite way as a righty and 54 percent lower to the opposite field as a lefty.)
But this year, Ramírez has taken steps to use more of the field. He ranks only 49th among qualified batters in pull rate in 2022,4 and his 35.1 percent tendency to hit balls up the middle is now slightly better than league average (the first time that’s been true since he was a 21-year-old rookie in 2014).5 Even granting that he still ranks among the least-likely hitters to use the opposite field, we might expect Ramírez’s less pull-centric swing to eat into his power numbers some — and his average exit velocity is down from last season, even relative to the league in a year when power has been sapped overall.
But in spite of that, Ramírez’s power production remains elite. His isolated slugging of .344 ranks second in MLB behind only Judge, sitting a career-best 132 percent better than league average. That should be enough to grab our attention, even if his actual slugging percentage of .651 is significantly outpacing the number we’d expect from his Statcast metrics (.527).
Ramírez’s relative anonymity could even be because he has not shone very brightly on the postseason stage — nor has he had much of a chance to do so in recent years. During his first season as a lineup regular in 2016, Ramírez had 5.0 WAR and was a key part of Cleveland’s march to a division title. He was also a playoff starter as the team marched to its first World Series in nearly two decades, even driving home the first run of Game 1. But his overall numbers that postseason were nothing special (.662 OPS), and that doesn’t even include the massive mistake he made getting picked off at first as the potential tying run early in Game 7 — a run Cleveland could have used later on in what turned out to be an epic contest.
Ramírez would then go a combined 2-for-31 over the next two postseasons, as Cleveland botched a 2-0 lead over the Yankees in the 2017 division series and was quickly swept by the Houston Astros the following year. Ramírez’s performance against the Yankees in the 2020 wild-card round was much better — he hit .429 with a 1.413 OPS — but his pitchers had a collective ERA of 11.00 in the series, so Cleveland never stood a chance. All told, Ramírez has a career OPS of just .572 in the playoffs (versus .865 in the regular season), his team has lost eight consecutive postseason games dating back to that blown lead against the Yankees, and Cleveland hasn’t even made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.
That’s a good recipe for getting overlooked by a national audience hyper-focused on postseason accomplishments. It could also change for Ramírez and the Guardians this season. Although our forecast model gives Cleveland a somewhat paltry 43 percent chance of making the playoffs, it also gives the Guardians a 23 percent chance to win the AL Central and a 1 percent chance to end their 73-year World Series drought. If Ramírez keeps playing at an MVP level — bolstered by an exciting young core featuring the likes of 23-year-old second baseman Andrés Giménez, 24-year-old outfielders Steven Kwan and Óscar González and 24-year-old pitcher Triston McKenzie — Cleveland could at least raise eyebrows (along with Ramírez’s profile) as the season goes on.
But that shouldn’t be necessary for Ramírez to get the consideration he’s owed among baseball’s contemporary greats. As we’ve seen with Trout, a transcendent player can earn plenty of respect despite virtually no presence on the postseason stage. (Ramírez has played more than eight times as many career playoff games as Trout anyway.) No matter the reason for his lack of fanfare, Ramírez clearly deserves to be a bigger star — something he keeps proving with his stellar numbers, year after year.
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