Perhaps for any MVP chase, even in this abbreviated/fake one, a player needs a signature moment to state their case. Especially when they play in a small market and are part of a team where the pitching gets the focus. It also doesn’t help that Cleveland has been “around” for five or six seasons now, either a contender or just about. It creates familiarity and then boredom. And if you’re Jose Ramirez, you need a signature moment to remind people that you still, in fact, exist. When he walked off the Chicago White Sox last night to clinch Cleveland’s playoff berth, Ramirez did just that.
It’s been a circuitous journey for Ramirez. When he finally became Cleveland’s full-time third baseman in 2016, he was among the best in the game for the next two seasons. His numbers stacked up favorably with Kris Bryant or Josh Donaldson or Anthony Rendon or Nolan Arenado. Ramirez was so good that he was the rare Cleveland position player that the club felt the need to lock in, giving him a five-year extension in 2017 that runs through to 2023.
And then Ramirez simply forgot how to hit.
Everything in 2018 started as normal. In the first half of that season, Ramirez hit .302/.401/.628 for an OPS of 1.029 and a stratospheric wRC+ of 170. So no one would have predicted that Ramirez would soon become a sucking sound in the middle of the Cleveland lineup for the next 160 games. In the second half of 2018, Ramirez slashed .218/.366/.427 for a pedestrian OPS of .793. Ramirez dropped to the middle of the pack of third basemen in MLB offensively after sitting in the penthouse for two and a half seasons.
The main culprit was that Ramirez could no longer hit fastballs in the zone, at least left-handed, which is kind of the 101 of MLB hitting:
But hey, that was just a bad half-season. Even if Ramirez was whiffing more and not hitting the ball as hard as he had, he was still on the donkey end of rotten luck on the balls he was putting in play (.208 BABIP). That usually rebounds.
Except in 2019, it didn’t. Ramirez’s first half of 2019 was an impossibly bad .218/.308/.344 for an Eckstein-like .652 OPS. Suddenly it was fair to wonder if Ramirez was broken. And it was also fair to wonder that after Cleveland had finally somewhat paid one of their players for once, if Ramirez’s descent into the ooze wouldn’t shy the club off of it with anyone else (namely, the guy who plays directly to Ramirez’s left, Francisco Lindor). Still, there were signs that Ramirez was ticking in the right direction.
His hard-contact rate shot up about 10 percent from the second half of 2018. Instead of whiffing on hard stuff up in the zone, he was putting up a ridiculous foul-per-swing percentage (over 50 percent), which at least meant he was getting something on them.
It all returned to where it had been in 43 second-half games last year before Ramirez took a pitch off his wrist, ending his season. He slashed .327/.365/.739 for an OPS of 1.105. The wRC+ of 176 (100 being average) ranked him second among all third-basemen, just behind Alex Bregman, who we all know was wearing FBI wires and ear-pieces to the plate.
Ramirez has picked up from there in this season-in-a-can, and his walk-off against the White Sox last night punted Cleveland into the playoffs, where thanks to their pitching staff they will most certainly be that vaunted “TEAM NO ONE WANTS TO PLAY.”
According to FanGraphs, Ramirez is the best player in MLB, with a 3.2 fWAR. His 159 wRC+ is also the best mark by any third baseman, and he’s No. 3 in defensive runs saved at the position behind Manny Machado and Rendon. He has vaulted himself front and center of the previously White Sox-centric discussion for AL MVP (and certainly one very interested observer thinks so).
This could be this iteration of Cleveland’s last stab at any kind of glory, whatever that might be for a currently third-place team heading into this playoff system with one last token to slide into the machine. Lindor will only have one year left on his deal when this season ends, which will assuredly lead to trade rumors all winter as he and the club haven’t come anywhere close to an extension.
Mike Clevinger was already cast aside to San Diego for his COVID-era indiscretions. It’s not that the team couldn’t find a way to keep Lindor around, they just won’t.
But with Cleveland’s pitching and Ramirez hitting like this, they have just about as good of a chance as anyone in the AL of making serious noise come next week.