It is easy at times to forget that Jose Ramirez is only 24 years old, especially after arguably the single most surprising contribution among those to take the field for the Cleveland Indians in 2016. The incredible and memorable season for the Tribe was made all the more possible due to the heroic breakout efforts of Ramirez in all facets of his game.
The versatile Ramirez wore multiple hats and lost numerous helmets over the course of the best season of his still young four-year Major League career. Manager Terry Francona was able to plug his super-sub into the lineup to fill significant needs as Ramirez proved early on that his previous issues at the plate and in the field were a thing of the past and that he belonged in the lineup on a daily basis.
This surprise contribution came from the same Ramirez who spent parts of each of the previous three seasons in the minors. His big league career started in 2013 when he jumped from Double-A to the Majors for the stretch run at the age of 20 to provide a glove and some speed off of the bench.
Ramirez started the 2014 season with his first exposure to the Triple-A level and after hitting the cover off of the ball with the Columbus Clippers, he was recalled by the Tribe. But in his return to the Majors, he mustered just two hits in 25 plate appearances and wound up back on the farm until the latter portion of July, when he returned and put up a far more respectable .283 average with the Indians to close out his season.
With much better results in his return to the Cleveland lineup, Ramirez was thought to be primed for a good run through 2015, but after hitting .222 in the spring and .180 in his first two months of the season with nearly as many strikeouts as hits, he was back in Columbus for some more seasoning. When he rejoined the Major League roster for good at the beginning of August, his numbers were better as he slashed .259/.337/.438 the rest of the way.
When the club elected to let veteran utility man Mike Aviles leave in free agency following the 2015 season, it opened the door for Ramirez to work as the team’s primary option off of the bench. His versatility would allow the club to rest its infielders regularly, and with the flexibility to work himself into some games in the outfield, Ramirez looked to be in line for a fair number of plate appearances in 2016.
But with the longer-than-expected recovery by left fielder Michael Brantley from his existing right shoulder injury, the Indians were in a bind in their outfield and Ramirez plugged himself right in, filling the role admirably while getting regular time in the lineup. As the season approached the trade deadline and with third baseman Juan Uribe showing signs that his career was coming to a close, the organization was able to add Brandon Guyer and later Coco Crisp to its outfield platoons, while Ramirez was able to jump into another position of need at the hot corner and claim it for his own.
In addition to serving a giant need in filling vacancies around the field, Ramirez was steady with the bat at the plate all year long. Just twice (in June and July) did he hit less than .300 for a month. He ripped an impressive 41 hits, including ten doubles and five homers, during a .350/.387/.581 month of August. He followed it up with a season-high 12 doubles and his fifth straight month with double-digit runs batted in.
The little switch-hitter was unaffected by which batter’s box he was standing in, as he hit .311 against left-handers and .312 against right-handers. He was one of the game’s top hitters at home, putting up a .347 batting average and .408 on-base percentage at Progressive Field with 32 of his 46 doubles and eight of his eleven homers. He even managed to step up his already career-high production to another level in the second half, slashing .329/.374/.509 after the All-Star break after putting up a .295/.352/.417 line before it.
He hit in every single spot in the lineup over the course of the season, oftentimes finding himself in the middle of the order with a crowded one through three. The bulk of the time came in the five-hole, making 79 starts there while hitting .323. He also saw 38 games of action batting sixth, hitting .303.
When the Indians needed production in the clutch, Ramirez was the guy who could consistently be counted on. He hit .355 with runners in scoring position (62 RBI) and .366 with two outs in the same situation. With men on base in general, he hit .346. He hit .400 with the bases loaded, .440 with a runner on third and less than two outs, and .481 with a runner at third and two outs.
With the pressure at its peak in October, Ramirez rarely shied away from the spotlight. He was 5-for-10 in the ALDS against Boston with a double. He scuffled in the ALCS against Toronto, falling into a 1-for-17 slump with just a single over the five games. But come the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, Ramirez was still out there and made a big difference, going 9-for-29 (.310) with seven singles, a double, one homer, and two runs batted in.
His all-around game in 2016 had his name included on multiple leaderboards in the American League and even earned him a ninth place vote in the AL Most Valuable Player voting. His .312 average for the season was seventh in the league and his .363 OBP finished tenth. He was second behind only Boston’s David Ortiz in doubles with 46. He was also one of the hardest players in the game to strike out, averaging 9.1 at bats per strikeout, third-best in the AL. On the bases, he was 22-of-29 in theft, good for the ninth-most stolen bases in the league. And defensively, he finished with the second-best fielding percentage (.979) by a third baseman in the AL.
Looking past the statistics, which were nearly all career-bests for the little fan favorite, Ramirez’s ability to fill multiple positions for frequent stretches of time saved the Indians dearly in 2016. While it was thought to be nearly impossible for the Indians to replace the production of Brantley on the fly, Ramirez gave the lineup a spark, some surprise power, some expected speed, and some consistent run production from the middle of the order behind table setters who excelled at getting on base throughout the year.
So, while not expected to contribute numbers close to Brantley’s .310/.379/.480 with 45 doubles, 15 homers, and 84 RBI from 2015, Ramirez put up a .312/.363/.462 line with 46 doubles, three triples, eleven homers, and 76 RBI. He made the absence of the team’s 2014 All-Star and third place finisher in the MVP voting far easier to digest. In many ways, the underrated Ramirez was the Indians’ MVP in 2016, as his ability to slot into multiple spots in the field and in the lineup while contributing significantly with the bat and on the bases helped stretch out the Cleveland roster that much more while it endured the loss of one of the club’s top players.
As the offseason now inches closer to spring training, Ramirez’s spot at third base may be his to lose. The outfield is crowded already with Tyler Naquin, Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Guyer already entrenched and Brantley expected and hoped to return to form. Infield spots up the middle are well manned by Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. Organizationally speaking, a pair of third base options are waiting in Columbus in Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz, but Urshela’s struggles at the plate have hurt him and Diaz’s time in a variety of roles during the 2016 minor league schedule would lead some to believe that the team may look at him more as a utility option in the near future.
While it may be a lot to expect a guy who had a career .239/.298/.346 slash line at the Major League level through his first three seasons (180 games) to replicate the .312/.363/.462 season he posted in 2016, Ramirez’s young age makes anything possible. With plenty of experience now under his belt, he may just be getting started. This past season could be just a taste of what is to come.
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