Cleveland’s Left Side Is the Best Side

With a month to go, Lindor and Ramirez have already recorded one of the top SS/3B seasons in history.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

At this point, it should surprise absolutely nobody paying even the remotest attention to the doings and transpirings of Major League Baseball that Jose Ramirez is having an MVP-type season. Ramirez may not, in fact, actually win the MVP award: Mookie Betts and Mike Trout have had similarly valuable seasons, while J.D. Martinez’s pursuit of the Triple Crown remains active. That said, one could easily make the argument that a very good defensive third baseman who’s produced a .292/.403/.607, 166 wRC+, and 8.1 WAR with another month go is clearly at least MVP-adjacent.

Perhaps the most telling tribute to Ramirez’s season is that he has somehow managed to overshadow Francisco Lindor’s own work a bit. The towering presence of Lindor’s talent and pedigree had previously — like sneaking a shot by Dikembe Mutombo — made such a thing seem unlikely.

If Ramirez is a superhero, though, Lindor’s more partner rather than sidekick. He gets to drive the Batmobile, solve the caper in 1890s London, and sing “Twist and Shout” in the Von Steuben Day Parade. Lindor ranks fourth in the American League in WAR among position players, hitting .291/.367/.533 and playing his typical interstellar defense at short. Some cities are built on rock ‘n’ roll, some on efficiency of infrastructure due to increased density, but Cleveland’s run-scoring is built on the backs of their shortstop and third-base pair.

To say that Lindor and Ramirez are a dangerous pair isn’t a flaming hot take. They’ve been so productive, however, that the time has come to ask not where the rank relative to their peers but to other shortstop/third-base combinations in major-league history. To answer this, I went through every team’s SS/3B pair — as defined by the players who received the most time at each position for their teams — since the beginning of the sport. I used their seasonal numbers because, after all, if Ramirez plays some scattered games at second base, as he did in 2016, does that really diminish how good the pair is?

To keep one partner from carrying too much of the burden for each pair, I ranked the SS/3B pairs by the geometric mean of their seasonal WAR. I’m aware that geometric mean goes wacky-tobaccy when one of the partners has a negative WAR. In this case, the pair with the most combined WAR with one player below replacement level is the 1985 Red Sox, with Wade Boggs (.368/.450/.478, 8.8 WAR) and Jackie Gutierrez (.218/.250/.273, -1.1 WAR). With them well out of even the top 200, I didn’t have to worry about that.

Best One-Year 3B/SS Combos
Rk Year Team Shortstop Third Baseman WAR GeoMean
1 1948 Indians Lou Boudreau Ken Keltner 18.1 8.9
2 1898 Orioles Hughie Jennings John McGraw 15.8 7.9
3 1908 Pirates Honus Wagner Tommy Leach 16.8 7.7
4 1982 Brewers Robin Yount Paul Molitor 15.4 7.4
5 1921 Giants Dave Bancroft Frankie Frisch 14.8 7.4
6 2018 Indians Francisco Lindor Jose Ramirez 14.7 7.3
7 1944 Indians Lou Boudreau Ken Keltner 14.1 6.9
8 1895 Orioles Hughie Jennings John McGraw 14.0 6.9
9 2007 Mets Jose Reyes David Wright 14.0 6.9
10 2003 Rangers Alex Rodriguez Hank Blalock 14.0 6.6
11 1964 White Sox Ron Hansen Pete Ward 13.3 6.6
12 1955 Braves Johnny Logan Eddie Mathews 13.3 6.6
13 2008 Mets Jose Reyes David Wright 12.9 6.4
14 2005 Yankees Derek Jeter Alex Rodriguez 13.5 6.3
15 2017 Indians Francisco Lindor Jose Ramirez 12.6 6.3
16 2003 Cardinals Edgar Renteria Scott Rolen 12.5 6.2
17 1928 Giants Travis Jackson Freddie Lindstrom 12.4 6.2
18 2004 Orioles Miguel Tejada Melvin Mora 12.2 6.1
19 2009 Rays Jason Bartlett Evan Longoria 12.3 6.1
20 1899 Orioles Bill Keister John McGraw 13.1 6.1

Lindor-Ramirez already ranked among the top 20 all-time in a season, with the 15th-best SS/3B season in MLB history last year. With Ramirez counting as a third baseman in 2016, as well, the pair squeeze into the top 100. What you see here is a list full of Hall of Fame talent, near-Hall of Fame talent, and Hall of Famers who happened to be teammates of Frankie Frisch. I had forgotten Jason Bartlett’s crazy season (.320/.389/.490, 5.2 WAR) from 2009 before seeing this table. Fun fact: Bartlett received no MVP votes in 2009, but he did get a weird fifth-place vote in 2008 after producing a .286/.329/.361 with a 1.8 WAR, which caused much internet tooth-gnashing at the time.

For those who like historical ineptitude sprinkled in with their greatness, Jim Levey and Art Scharein of the 1933 St. Louis Browns somehow managed to combine for -6.4 WAR, a number almost unimaginably horrid — imagine having two Chris Davisi at the same time and them being even worse than the real one.

The thing about the above is that we still have some of the 2018 season remaining, with the chance that Lindor and Ramirez can catch another iconic Indian pair, Lou Boudreau and Ken Keltner, for the single-season crown. So, let’s run the table again, with the projected Lindor/Ramirez final results. We’ll also add the 2019-21 ZiPS projections for the duo, with Francisco Lindor currently eligible for free agency after the 2021 season.

Best One-Year 3B/SS Combos (Projected)
Rk Year Team Shortstop Third Baseman WAR GeoMean
1 1948 Indians Lou Boudreau Ken Keltner 18.1 8.9
2 2018 Indians Francisco Lindor (Proj) Jose Ramirez (Proj) 17.4 8.7
3 1898 Orioles Hughie Jennings John McGraw 15.8 7.9
4 1908 Pirates Honus Wagner Tommy Leach 16.8 7.7
5 1982 Brewers Robin Yount Paul Molitor 15.4 7.4
6 1921 Giants Dave Bancroft Frankie Frisch 14.8 7.4
7 1944 Indians Lou Boudreau Ken Keltner 14.1 6.9
8 1895 Orioles Hughie Jennings John McGraw 14.0 6.9
9 2007 Mets Jose Reyes David Wright 14.0 6.9
10 2021 Indians Francisco Lindor (Proj) Jose Ramirez (Proj) 13.7 6.8
11 2020 Indians Francisco Lindor (Proj) Jose Ramirez (Proj) 13.6 6.8
12 2019 Indians Francisco Lindor (Proj) Jose Ramirez (Proj) 13.4 6.7
13 2003 Rangers Alex Rodriguez Hank Blalock 14.0 6.6
14 1964 White Sox Ron Hansen Pete Ward 13.3 6.6
15 1955 Braves Johnny Logan Eddie Mathews 13.3 6.6
16 2008 Mets Jose Reyes David Wright 12.9 6.4
17 2005 Yankees Derek Jeter Alex Rodriguez 13.5 6.3
18 2017 Indians Francisco Lindor Jose Ramirez 12.6 6.3
19 2003 Cardinals Edgar Renteria Scott Rolen 12.5 6.2
20 1928 Giants Travis Jackson Freddie Lindstrom 12.4 6.2

If Lindor and Ramirez play up to their projections, they would own five of the top-20 3B/SS seasons in MLB history. Overall, that wouldn’t put them past Boudreau/Keltner, who played nine seasons together as the full-time SS/3B combo for the Indians from 1940 to -49 (Ken Keltner served in the military in 1945). In terms of total WAR for the seasons as a pair, assuming Lindor departs after 2021, Lindor/Ramirez’s projected 81.1 WAR would rank fifth among pairs in MLB history, behind Johnny Logan/Eddie Mathews, Lou Boudreau/Ken Keltner, Bert Campaneris/Sal Bando, and Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez. Filling out the top 10 are Larry Bowa/Mike Schmidt, Bill Russell/Ron Cey, Don Kessinger/Ron Santo, Mark Belanger/Brooks Robinson, and Jack Barry/Frank Baker.

Suffice it to say, making certain that they keep Lindor past 2021 is a high priority for Cleveland. Lindor already turned down a long-term extension prior to the 2017 season, rumored to be in the $100 million range. With two more excellent seasons in the bag, the price tag for a Lindor extension isn’t any lighter. If Lindor/Ramirez both make it to Cooperstown someday, it’d be fitting if they were inducted simultaneously, as representatives of the 2015-25 Indians, similar to the Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker Hall of Fame weekend we never got to have.

We hoped you liked reading Cleveland’s Left Side Is the Best Side by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Josh Nelson
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Member

I wonder how much weight Lindor/Ramirez are going to carry for the Indians 2019 to 2021. Seems like they a lot of heavy lifting already , and I can’t imagine the current support system getting any better without outside (FA, trade) help.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

Cleveland’s in the AL Central. Lindor, Ramirez, and 23 dudes from your Tuesday night slow pitch softball beer league is enough to win that dumpster fire of a division.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Almost.

A replacement level team is about a 48-win season. In 2018, Lindor/Ramirez are projected for a combined 17.4 WAR for $3.4M. That only takes you to about 65 wins. The 5 starting pitchers are also all providing good surplus, about 22.3 WAR for $26.3M. That takes you to about 88 wins for less than $30M. That leaves you a budget of $120M or whatever to pay 18 guys from your softball team, and so long as they don’t cost you more than 11 wins, you should still beat the Twins for the division.

Being a GM is so easy.

sandwiches4ever
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Member
sandwiches4ever

You know, when someone makes a clearly exaggerated comment, than someone else comes along and proves that it might not be so exaggerated after all, it can be breathtaking.

bosoxforlife
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Member
bosoxforlife

Not exaggerated at all, simply funny, very funny.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

comment image

emh1969
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emh1969

Yeah, besides Lindor and Ramirez most of the position players are either free agents (Brantley, Chisenhall) or aging veterans who are unlikely to find the fountain of youth (Gomes, EE, Alonso, Kipnis).

And the upper minors don’t have much to offer in the way of help. Of course, certain Indians fans think that Yandy Diaz is the next Edgar Martinez and that Greg Allen is the next Kenny Lofton. But obviously, your best bet would be to take the under on both of those possibilities.

So yeah, seems like Lindor and Ramirez will have to carry the offense for the next few years (barring a trade or major free agent signing).

dl80
Member
dl80

Diaz is not the next Edgar (obviously), but he would definitely be better than Kipnis. Ramirez at 2b, and Diaz at 3b is their best option there, with Kip sitting or traded.

isavage
Member
isavage

I think it’s fairly easy though to find complementary players when your foundation is Lindor and Ramirez. You don’t really need any more stars, you just need some guys, who aren’t terrible, a la Alonso. It’s not usually super expensive to get some 1-2 WAR players, or hard to find some players like that in-house … which is all they have this year outside of Ramirez and Lindor. Prospects like Diaz, Chang, and youngish non-prospects like Allen and Naquin are definitely capable of putting up 1-2 WAR seasons.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Except that model assumes that both players stay healthy and productive. Which is never, ever a guarantee.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Another way of appreciating how ridiculously good Lindor/Ramirez are:

Their season-to-date 14.7 WAR is better than 13 other teams’ position player WAR. Including all of 4 other teams in the AL Central. Actually, Lindor/Ramirez are better than all of the position players on the Orioles/Padres/Tigers combined (13.5 WAR).