Last year at this time, Jose Ramirez was on the verge of being sent back to the minors after a disastrous two months to start the 2015 season. The Indians had hoped to groom him as their utility player of the future with the thought veteran Mike Aviles was likely headed elsewhere after the year had ended.
Ramirez had enjoyed a promising end to the 2014 campaign and Tribe management thought it had something to build with in their very young player, who now is only 23. Ramirez, who had hit a respectable .262 in 68 games of 2014 in his first real shot at being a Major League player, looked completely lost to open the year in 2015.
Though playing solid defense at shortstop, third base and second base, Ramirez’s .180 batting average following a June 7 game was enough to let Cleveland’s brass know that the kid was not quite ready for the big leagues. He needed a trip back to Triple-A Columbus to get both his hitting and his confidence back in order.
He did just that.
In 44 games with Clippers, the switch-hitting utility player batted .293 and was again making good contact with the baseball. He returned to the Indians in early August. Cleveland was in the midst of a disappointing year, about to unload Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in a surprising trade while giving its young players a chance to show what they could and could not do for two months.
Ramirez showed that he was a lot more ready for the big leagues than he had been before. Even a mediocre batting average of .241 in August was 60 points higher that he had been before the demotion. Then the 23-year-old showed in September that he might have finally started figuring out how to hit in the Majors. He had his best month, by far, to that point with Cleveland. He hit a solid .306 and showed some power with four home runs and eleven RBI in 62 at bats in the campaign’s final month.
Ramirez’s work after returning to the Tribe raised his overall season average to .219. While still not good, it was a far cry from where he was a week into June. More importantly, he had found some confidence that seemed to have been nonexistent during his early season struggles. It is a confidence and strong approach at the plate the Ramirez has brought into this season.
Last year Ramirez was enjoying that strong September as the Indians were turning a down year into one that suddenly saw them in Wild Card contention in the final couple of weeks. Ramirez was one of a few surprising players at the forefront of that surge.
This year Ramirez has been one of the big reasons the Tribe has gotten off to a pretty good start and the offense is one of the highest scoring outfits in the American League, despite the absence of superstar left fielder Michael Brantley for the majority of the first two-plus months.
Cleveland knew since October that Brantley could be out for a stretch of time following offseason shoulder surgery. Then center fielder Abraham Almonte was lost for half the season with the announcement of a failed substance test during spring training. The team needed help in the outfield. Ramirez, already having proved that he was a very good athlete in the field covering three infield spots, was given the chance to expand his repertoire. The Indians decided to go full-scale with an experiment started last year and gave Ramirez work in the outfield. He showed he could handle it. Now, with four positions he can successful cover, and maybe more, Ramirez had become a super utility player.
However, the question remained whether he would hit. Hit, he has. While he languished in mediocrity at the plate through first two weeks of June a year ago, Ramirez has been far from that as June’s first week comes close to end this season.
Ramirez has actually become one of the Tribe’s most dependable hitters while spending most of his fielding time in left field and at third base. In 48 games, Ramirez leads the Tribe with an astounding .317 batting average. He has 14 doubles, to go with three home runs and 20 RBI.
When the season began, Tribe manager Terry Francona was using Ramirez as the typical utility player. He was getting work four of five games a week with days on the bench, here and there. In April, Ramirez batted .305 in 59 at bats and his days of irregular work came to an end. Since May 5, Ramirez had not had a day off. Putting him on the bench would be hard to do anyways as Ramirez has shined even further since playing every day. In the season’s second month, he batted .314 in 86 at bats. He began June with six hits in his first 12 at bats and is one of the hottest hitters in the Tribe lineup.
Even more impressive is that Ramirez has not been doing his damage solely in moments that do not matter. Where he seemed timid last year, he now seems to enjoy pressure situations. Ramirez has been huge in clutch situations. With two-outs and runners in scoring position, Ramirez is hitting .409. In late, close games – counted by scores within four runs – he is hitting a very respectable .278. These numbers are why, despite not being a power hitter, he has hit fifth on more occasions than anywhere else in the lineup. He has propensity for knocking in runners and getting hits when most needed.
While he is a utility guy in the field, having played four positions this year, Ramirez has become a utility guy in the lineup. He has batted in eight of the nine spots of Francona’s batting order this year. The only place he has not found himself is in the number four cleanup spot. Other than leadoff, where he is 0-for-6, Ramirez has batted .250 or better everywhere else.
Now that Ramirez has hit well for three straight months going back to last year and can play all over the diamond, he really has become indispensable. Almonte will be eligible to return in 26 games. Brantley will hopefully be back before the All-Star break, though there is currently no timetable for him after his early May setback with his shoulder issue.
Even when the Indians do have all their players back, Ramirez has now shown he needs to remain a fixture in the starting lineup. With all the spots in the field that he can cover, Ramirez can play every day in different places and give other regulars rest where needed.
A year ago, the Indians were looking for the polite way to get their young, lost, and struggling utility player out of Cleveland for a while. Now, the Indians lineup would be lost without a guy who could be making a shocking case for himself to be a part of this year’s Midsummer Classic.
The saying “what a difference a year can make” is sometimes overused. However, the difference between Ramirez in the first week of June this year and Ramirez in the first week of June last year is truly like night and day.
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