JAWS and the 2020 Hall of Fame Ballot: Manny Ramirez

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2017 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

A savant in the batter’s box, Manny Ramirez could be an idiot just about everywhere else — sometimes amusingly, sometimes much less so. The Dominican-born slugger, who grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, stands as one of the greatest hitters of all time, a power-hitting right-handed slugger who spent the better part of his 19 seasons (1993–2011) terrorizing pitchers. A 12-time All-Star, Ramirez bashed 555 home runs and helped the Indians and the Red Sox reach two World Series apiece, adding a record 29 postseason homers along the way. He was the World Series MVP for Boston in 2004, when the club won its first championship in 86 years.

For all of his prowess with the bat, Ramirez’s lapses — Manny Being Manny — both on and off the field are legendary. There was the time in 1997 that he “stole” first base, returning to the bag after a successful steal of second because he thought Jim Thome had fouled off a pitch… the time in 2004 that he inexplicably cut off center fielder Johnny Damon’s relay throw from about 30 feet away, leading to an inside-the-park home run… the time in 2005 when he disappeared mid-inning to relieve himself inside Fenway Park’s Green Monster… the time in 2008 that he high-fived a fan mid-play between catching a fly ball and doubling a runner off first… and so much more.

Beneath those often comic lapses was an intense work ethic, apparent as far back as his high school days, that allowed Ramirez’s talent to flourish. But there was also a darker side, one that, particularly after he left the Indians, went beyond the litany of late arrivals to spring training, questionable absences due to injury (particularly for the All-Star Game), and near-annual trade requests. Most notably, there was his shoving match with 64-year-old Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick in 2008, which prefigured Ramirez’s trade to the Dodgers that summer, and a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence/battery in 2011 after his wife told an emergency operator that her husband had slapped her face, causing her to hit her head against the headboard of the bed. (That domestic violence charge was later dropped after his wife refused to testify.) Interspersed with those two incidents were a pair of suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use, the second of which ran him out of the majors.

For all of the handwringing about PED-tinged candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot over the past decade, Ramirez is the first star with actual suspensions on his record to gain eligibility since Rafael Palmeiro in 2011. Like Palmeiro, he has numbers that would otherwise make his enshrinement a lock, and he’s fared better than his predecessor, not that it’s saying much. He received 23.8% in his 2017 ballot debut, a higher share than Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, players who were never suspended, but has dipped slightly since then, with shares of 22.0% and 22.8% since. He won’t get into Cooperstown anytime soon, but he won’t fall off the ballot anytime soon, either.

2020 BBWAA Candidate: Manny Ramirez
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Manny Ramirez 69.3 40.0 54.7
Avg. HOF LF 65.5 41.6 53.6
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,574 555 .312/.411/.585 154
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Ramirez was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on May 30, 1972, and moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood — home of one of the city’s highest homicide rates at the time — at age 13. His mother worked as a seamstress in a dress factory and his father drove a livery cab and repaired electronics. At 14, playing for his traveling Youth Service team, he already stood out. “Manny was easy to coach because he probably had the best focus of any hitter we ever had,” said his Youth Service coach, Mel Zitter, in 2004. “He always had a plan. And if the pitcher got him out, he’d tell me why: ‘I was looking for a fastball in, but he threw me a curveball and I popped it up.'”

Ramirez didn’t just star in baseball at George Washington High School, where the entire varsity squad was Dominican-born; he built a legend there. At 4:30 every morning, he would run up the steepest hill in the neighborhood, dragging a spare tire tied to a rope around his waist. One tale has him hitting a home run to left field with a one-handed swing. He played center field and third base, hit .650 with 14 homers and 31 steals in 22 games as a senior, and learned to hit to the opposite field because the school’s right field fence was only about 280 feet away.

Ramirez didn’t graduate from George Washington, but at 19, he was old enough for the 1991 draft. The Indians chose him with the 13th pick and signed him for a $250,00 bonus. Scout Joe DeLuca delivered him to the team’s Rookie league affiliate in Burlington, North Carolina, with one rule: “Don’t let anyone talk to you about changing your swing.” Ramirez hit .326/.426/.679 with 19 homers in 59 games that season, and vaulted onto Baseball America’s top prospects list at No. 37 the following spring. He lost two months at Class A to a right wrist contusion in 1992 but recovered to bash 31 homers and hit a combined .333/.417/.613 split between Double-A and Triple-A in ’93. Though he went just 9-for-55 in a September call-up, he enjoyed a remarkable homecoming in his second big league game on September 3, going 3-for-4 with a pair of homers against the Yankees in the Bronx, not far from where he had grown up.

The Indians finished above .500 just once between 1982 and 1993, but with a cadre of young stars — Thome, 23; second baseman Carlos Baerga, 25; outfielders Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, both 27; and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., 28 — they were a powerhouse in the making. On Opening Day in 1994, the 22-year-old Ramirez started in right field and doubled off the Mariners’ Randy Johnson. His .269/.357/.521 showing, with 17 homers, helped him finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting behind obscurity-bound Bob Hamelin of Kansas City.

Cleveland went 66–47 in the strike-torn season, but in 1995, the club stormed to a 100–44 record and its first pennant since ’54. Ramirez broke out to earn All-Star honors, batting .308/.402/.558 with 31 homers, 107 RBIs, and a 147 OPS+ (sixth in the league). After starting the postseason in a 1-for-16 funk, he went 4-for-4 with a pair of homers in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Mariners. Unfortunately, his World Series performance against the Braves was most notable for being picked off first base in the eighth inning of Game 2 as the tying run, with Thome at bat. Ramirez went 4-for-18 as the Indians bowed to the Braves in six games.

During the 1995 season, the legend of Manny had begun to grow. Indians manager Mike Hargrove‘s response to learning that Ramirez had left a paycheck in a pair of boots during a road trip — “That’s just Manny being Manny” — was reported by Newsday’s Jon Heyman and soon gained traction. According to ESPN’s Mike Hume, the phrase was used more than 1,600 times in print over the next 14 years, generally to describe Ramirez’s mystifying and occasionally off-putting behavior, from holding himself out of the lineup to stiffing people to whom he had promised tickets to sticking his high school coach with a $7,000 bill for new uniforms that he had agreed to buy.

In December 1995, Ramirez signed a four-year, $10.1 million extension, joining Alomar, Baerga, Thome, and shortstop Omar Vizquel among those whose arbitration years general manager John Hart bought out, enabling the team to save millions while keeping its nucleus together. Hart’s pioneering strategy helped Cleveland to six first-place finishes in the newly-created AL Central over a seven-year span (1995–2002).

Ramirez continued to rake in 1996 (144 OPS+, 4.2 WAR) and ’97 (146 OPS+, 4.6 WAR), with his value increasing via slightly better (but still subpar) defense. The Indians won 99 games in 1996, but while Ramirez went 6-for-16 with homers off David Wells and Mike Mussina, he couldn’t propel the Indians past the Orioles in the Division Series. He hit .286/.444/.619 against Baltimore in the ALCS the following season, with a pair of home runs in one-run victories, then homered twice more in the World Series against the Marlins, but he collected just two other hits in the Indians’ seven-game loss.

Ramirez raised his game to a new level in 1998, bashing 45 homers, driving in 145 runs, and slugging .599 — all good for fourth in the league — while beginning a streak of 11 straight All-Star selections. He had another monster season in 1999: .333/.442/.663, with his slugging percentage, 165 RBIs, and 174 OPS+ all leading the league; his on-base percentage ranked second, his 7.3 WAR (a career high) third, and his batting average fifth. Ramirez tied for third in a hotly contested AL MVP vote won by Ivan Rodriguez. His performance made picking up his $4.25 million club option for 2000 a no-brainer, but while he hit 38 homers and set career highs in all three slash stats (.351/.457/.697) as well as OPS+ (186), the Indians went 19-20 during his six-week absence due to a strained left hamstring and finished with 90 wins, one fewer than the Wild Card-winning Mariners and five fewer than the Central-winning White Sox. D’oh!

When Ramirez hit free agency, agent Jeff Moorad gave ESPN’s Outside the Lines unprecedented access to the negotiations as he met with executives from Boston, Cleveland, and Seattle, none of whom were told they were being taped until just before the meetings. With Alex Rodriguez having recently signed his landmark 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers, Moorad sought 10 years and $200 million for his client. He didn’t quite get that, but the eight-year, $160 million deal Ramirez received from the Red Sox was the second-largest contract in baseball history to that point.

Over the next 7 1/2 seasons, Ramirez would put up virtually identical numbers in Boston (.312/.411/.588, 155 OPS+) to those he did in Cleveland (.313/.407/.592, 152 OPS+), but almost always amid the heightened drama that came with residence in baseball’s fishbowl. Before he could take the field on Opening Day 2001, the first of numerous controversies ensued, as he reneged on an agreement to switch from right field to left field, where he’d never played. A hamstring strain that confined him to DH duty for the first two months of the season tabled the matter, and when he was finally able to play the field in early June, he did so in left. Although hopes were high regarding his joining Nomar Garciaparra to form one of the game’s foremost 1–2 punches, the slugging shortstop was limited to 21 games by a wrist tendon injury in 2001; Ramirez, though he hit 41 homers, drove in 125 runs, and slugged .609, couldn’t do it all alone in a lineup that had just two other above-average regulars. The Sox went 82–79, firing manager Jimy Williams late in the season; already, rumors of Ramirez’s unhappiness in Boston surfaced.

Under a new regime — owner John Henry, club president Larry Lucchino, and manager Grady Little (Theo Epstein would be promoted to GM the next year) — the Red Sox rebounded to go 93–69 in 2002. Ramirez hit .349/.450/.647, leading the league in both batting average and on-base percentage, and ranking second in both slugging percentage and OPS+ (184) and sixth in WAR (6.0), but he missed six weeks in May and June after fracturing his left index finger on a head-first slide. In a minor league rehab appearance, he lost a diamond-encrusted earring while making another head-first slide, because of course he did.

In 2003, flanked by Garciaparra and scrapheap pickup David Ortiz, Ramirez led the AL in OBP (.427) and intentional walks (28) and clouted 37 homers. Although he played in 154 games, his absences — a left hamstring injury that kept him out of the All-Star Game; an illness that kept him out of the lineup one day against the Yankees but didn’t stop him from socializing with New York infielder Enrique Wilson; a benching the day after he declared himself too weak to pinch-hit — raised eyebrows. Nonetheless, Boston won 95 games and the AL Wild Card, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1999. In the Division Series, Ramirez shook off a 3-for-18 slump with a go-ahead three-run homer off the A’s Barry Zito in the do-or-die Game 5. The Red Sox advanced, and his four-hit effort — including a homer off Mussina — helped beat the Yankees in the ALCS opener, but New York outlasted Boston in the seven-game series, won by Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer.

Though Ramirez had hit for a 167 OPS+ (tied for fourth in MLB) and produced 16.6 WAR in his three seasons in Boston, the Red Sox were already willing to consider life without him. At the end of October, they put him on irrevocable waivers, meaning that another team could claim him and assume the five years and $104 million remaining on his contract without surrendering talent in return. The Sox literally couldn’t give the 31-year-old slugger away. The Yankees and Angels, two teams that could have absorbed such a salary, instead signed Gary Sheffield and Vladimir Guerrero, respectively. When Boston attempted to acquire Rodriguez from the Rangers in December, they offered up Ramirez in a package that also included pitching prospect Jon Lester. That deal fell through over issues in restructuring Rodriguez’s contract, and eventually it was the Yankees who traded for A-Rod.

Undaunted by his team’s attempts to get rid of him, and heeding the advice of teammates Ortiz and Kevin Millar to be more accommodating with the media — which he often spurned for long stretches — Ramirez continued to mash. He hit .308/.397/.613 in 2004, leading the AL with 43 homers as the Sox, self-proclaimed “Idiots,” won 98 games and another Wild Card berth. In the postseason, Ramirez drove in eight runs during the team’s three-game Division Series sweep of the Angels, and while he wasn’t central to Boston’s unprecedented comeback from a 3–0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, his 7-for-17, 1.088 OPS performance in the World Series sweep of the Cardinals earned him MVP honors as the Sox won their first championship since 1918. With at least one hit in every postseason game, Ramirez produced a record-tying 17-game hitting streak that dated back to the 2003 ALCS.

Despite the championship, the Red Sox again explored trading Ramirez over the winter, this time to the Mets, but Boston’s unwillingness to kick in enough off the $77 million remaining on his contract scuttled the deal. Money would remain an issue when the two teams revisited talks the following July, and again after Ramirez asked for a trade following the 2005 season, in what Lucchino said was his fourth request since Henry had bought the team. Being Manny, he was typically productive in both 2005 (45 homers, 153 OPS+, 4.4 WAR) and ’06 (35 homers, a league-high .439 OBP, 165 OPS+, 4.5 WAR), but the Red Sox were ousted in the first round of the postseason by the White Sox in the former year and missed the playoffs in the latter. Patellar tendonitis limited Ramirez to just six starts after August 26, 2006, which drew allegations of malingering and, again, a request for a trade.

Ramirez missed most of September 2007 due to an oblique strain, capping his least productive season since his rookie year (20 homers, 126 OPS+, 1.1 WAR). Still, he homered twice in both the Division Series against the Angels and the ALCS against the Indians, starting with a walk-off–three-run shot off Francisco Rodriguez in ALDS Game 2:

His ALCS Game 2 homer was the 23rd postseason shot of his career, surpassing Bernie Williams for the all-time record. Ramirez went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs in the World Series opener against the Rockies, and while he wasn’t much of a factor the rest of the Series, the Sox swept their way to their second championship in four seasons.

On May 31, 2008, Ramirez hit the 500th home run of his career, off the Orioles’ Chad Bradford, but it was a rare highlight in his final go-around in a Red Sox uniform. June was bracketed by altercations, first with teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout, then with his shove of McCormick. After removing himself from the lineup against Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain in July, claiming knee pain, the Sox sent him for MRIs on both knees when he “forgot” which one ailed him.

Both sides had reached their limit. The Red Sox stepped up efforts to shop the unhappy slugger, who in turn, blasted them to ESPN Deportes:

The Red Sox don’t deserve a player like me. During my years here, I’ve seen how they have mistreated other great players when they didn’t want them to try to turn the fans against them.

The Red Sox did the same with guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, and now they do the same with me. Their goal is to paint me as the bad guy. I love Boston fans, but the Red Sox don’t deserve me. I’m not talking about money. Mental peace has no price, and I don’t have peace here.

The next day, on July 31, the Red Sox sent Ramirez and $7 million to cover his remaining salary to the Dodgers in a three-way, six-player deal that brought them Pirates slugger Jason Bay. To get Ramirez to waive his 10-and-5 rights, Los Angeles agreed to decline a $20 million 2009 option, and Ramirez agreed to decline arbitration, making him a free agent at season’s end.

Donning uniform No. 99, Ramirez joined the Dodgers, who were just 54–54 but a game out of first place in the NL West. He went 13-for-23 with four homers in his first six games and never really cooled off, putting up video-game numbers (.396/.489/.743, 17 homers, 221 OPS+, 3.5 WAR) that endeared himself to stony-faced new manager Joe Torre even as he flouted orders to get a haircut. Dreadlocked wigs under Dodgers caps became the rage in Chavez Ravine, and L.A. won the division with an 84–78 record. Ramirez went 13-for-28 with four homers in a Division Series sweep against the Cubs and a six-game NLCS loss to the Phillies. He finished fourth in the MVP voting despite having played just 53 games in the National League.

A free agent at age 37, Ramirez reportedly sought a four-year deal worth about $25 million per year, but no team wanted to commit to that kind of headache. In March, he agreed to a two-year, $45 million contract with the Dodgers that included an opt-out after the first year. He even picked up where he left off, batting .348/.492/.641 through the first week of May, but just over a week after the team launched a special Mannywood section in left field, Ramirez drew a 50-game suspension for taking a banned medication, the female fertility drug human chorionic gonadotropin, which is typically used by steroid users to restore testosterone production. Less than a month after his return, The New York Times reported that both Ramirez and Ortiz were among the players who had failed the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, which carried no penalty but had triggered the implementation of a testing and penalty regimen.

Despite the controversies, Ramirez helped the Dodgers win the NL West and sweep the Cardinals in the Division Series before again falling to the Phillies in the NLCS. With the recent black marks against his name, he opted not to test the free-agent market again. Amid a strong half-season for the Dodgers in 2010, he made three trips to the disabled list for a variety of injuries, playing in just seven games from June 29 to August 29. Mannywood was dismantled, and on August 30, the White Sox claimed him off waivers.

Ramirez never got it going in Chicago, homering just once in 88 plate appearances. The following January, he signed a one-year deal to DH for the Rays but played in just five games before MLB announced that he had again tested positive for a banned substance. Facing a 100-game suspension, he opted to retire. While he made comeback attempts with the Triple-A affiliates of the A’s (2012), Rangers (’13), and Cubs (’14), and even played 49 games for the EDA Rhinos in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan in ’13, he never returned to the majors.

Ramirez finished with offensive numbers that are of Cooperstown caliber. His total of 555 homers ranks 15th in baseball history, his 1,831 RBIs are 19th, and his 4,826 total bases are 30th. Among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances, his 154 OPS+ is tied with Frank Robinson for 20th all-time; his .585 slugging percentage is seventh, and his .411 on-base percentage is 21st. Among righties with at least 9,000 PA since World War II, only Frank Thomas (156), Willie Mays (156), and Hank Aaron (155) outdid him in OPS+; Ramirez’s slugging percentage is tops among that group, and his on-base percentage is second. Between his All-Star selections, league leads — once each in homers, RBIs, and OPS+, and three times apiece in on-base percentage and slugging percentage — and other accomplishments, his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 226 is tied for 34th all-time, well above the threshold of a likely inductee.

From an advanced statistical perspective, Ramirez’s 651 batting runs — the offensive component of WAR — ranks 18th all-time, but his ineptitude on the base paths (-22 runs), avoiding double plays (-27 runs), and in the field (-129 runs, using both Total Zone up through 2002 and Defensive Runs Saved thereafter) chips away at that value; the last of those is the sixth-worst total of all time. That said, it’s worth noting that defensive metrics have generally had a tough time with Boston left fielders due to the Green Monster; other systems, such as Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (-66 runs) and Michael Humphreys’ Defensive Regression Analysis (-91 runs) both paint rosier pictures of Ramirez’s glove work than the TZ/DRS combo. On the other hand, he’s even worse via UZR (-115 runs) in the 2003–11 period also covered by DRS (-90).

Even while taking the larger hit from Baseball-Reference’s choice of defensive metrics, Ramirez’s 69.4 career WAR is tied with Tim Raines for seventh all-time among left fielders, trailing only Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, and four of the 20 Hall of Famers; he’s about four wins above the standard there. His 40.0 peak WAR is 12th, 1.6 wins below the standard — the defense hurts him, particularly as he ranked in the league’s top 10 just twice — and his 54.7 JAWS is tied for ninth, 1.1 points above the standard and ahead of 13 of the 20 enshrined.

On performance alone, that’s a Hall of Famer, but Ramirez’s drug transgressions make voting for him anything but automatic. I don’t have a ballot until the 2021 cycle, but as someone who draws a distinction between allegations stemming from the “Wild West” era before testing and penalties were in place, and those that resulted in actual suspensions, I wouldn’t vote for Ramirez at this juncture, whereas I would vote for Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Not everybody agrees with that position. What’s interesting from an electorate that has used pre-testing era allegations to shun both McGwire (who debuted at 23.5% and maxed out at 23.7%) and Sosa (who peaked at 12.5% in his 2013 debut and has been below 9.0% ever since) — neither of whom ever tested positive or were suspended — is that Ramirez debuted with a higher share than either (23.8%). Whether or not Joe Morgan’s 2017 anti-PED candidate letter to voters changed anyone’s mind, he has yet to match his first-year share, though he has’t fallen off by much.

With the ballot traffic thinned out by the election of 11 players over the past three cycles, Ramirez could gain a bit of traction. Half a dozen voters whose ballots were recorded in Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker last year said they would have voted for him if they had more than 10 slots. That’s not an overwhelming total, and the number needn’t be taken literally, but it’s a sign that portends growth:

Ultimately, while Ramirez seems to have leapfrogged most of the PED-linked candidates in terms of support, I suspect that his chances of election hinge upon Bonds and Clemens gaining entry first, which is anything but a sure thing even given that both received around 59% last year, about a five-point gain over the previous two cycles. More so than McGwire, Sosa, or Palmeiro, Ramirez sticks out as a player whose combination of elite performance and mindless transgressions may test the will of the voters to stick to a hardline stance. I’d be lying if I said I knew how that stance would age, or if I weren’t tempted to hold my nose and vote for him someday as well.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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