JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Aramis Ramirez

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. 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. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2021 BBWAA Candidate: Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez 3B 32.4 29.5 30.9 2303 386 29 .283/.341/.492 115
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Aramis Ramirez hit more homers than all but six players who spent the majority of their careers at third base, and he also ranks among the top half-dozen from the hot corner in RBI, and fourth in slugging percentage among those with at least 7,000 plate appearances. While that’s not enough to make him a serious Hall of Fame candidate once his 18-year career is placed in its proper context, the three-time All-Star deserves his due as the final entry in the One-and-Done portion of my annual series.

Ramirez put up big offensive numbers while spending his entire career in the NL Central, bookended by stints with the Pirates (1998-2003, ’15) that included a chance to finally represent them in postseason play. He was part of three playoff teams during his 8 1/2-season stint with the Cubs (2003-11), for whom he was a two-time All-Star, and made the last of his All-Star berths during three lean years in Milwaukee (’12-14). The man could hit: Ramirez batted .300 or better seven times, with a high of .318 in 2004; swatted 25 or more homers in a season 10 times, topping 30 four times; and drove in 100 or more runs seven times; he set highs in the last two categories in 2006, when he hit 38 homers and drove in 119 runs. Tellingly, in a hitter-friendly era he only grazed the leaderboards in those triple crown categories, with eight top-10 finishes but just one higher than seventh place.

Aramis Ramirez was born on June 25, 1978 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Unlike so many Dominican players who come from poverty, he was comparatively well off, as his father was a doctor and his mother an accountant. Basketball was his first love; he didn’t start playing baseball until age 13, but the fact that he owned three gloves made up for his deficit in skill relative to other kids in his neighborhood. “I was really bad,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Jamal Greene in 2001, “But if they didn’t let me play, they wouldn’t have enough gloves.”

The Pirates signed Ramirez in August 1994, when he was 16 years old, and at a point when the franchise was just two years removed from its run of three straight NL East titles under manager Jim Leyland. After a year in the Dominican Summer League, Ramirez came stateside and skipped Rookie ball, beginning his career at Low-A Erie, where he hit .305/.403/.525 with nine homers before earning a late-season promotion to A-ball. That landed him on Baseball America’s 1997 Top 100 Prospects list at number 26, heralding a season in which he won Carolina League MVP honors with a 29-homer, .278/.390/.517 showing at High-A Lynchburg. Impressed by his strong arm as well as his power and batting eye, BA ranked him fifth among their Top 100 in the spring of 1998, behind only Ben Grieve, Paul Konerko, Adrián Beltré, and Kerry Wood, and ahead of future MVP Miguel Tejada, two-time Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, and Hall candidate Todd Helton.

After just 47-games at Triple-A Nashville, Ramirez was called up by the Pirates, and was less than a month shy of his 20th birthday when he debuted against the Brewers on May 26, 1998. He went 0-for-3 with a walk, and in fact ran his streak of futility to 0-for-24 before smacking a bases-loaded double off the Mets’ Greg McMichael on June 3. Though his bat heated up enough for the Pirates to keep him in the majors, he scuffled on both sides of the ball, hitting .235/.296/.351 (68 OPS+) with six homers, -8 defensive runs (via Total Zone) and -1.5 WAR in 72 games.

Wisely, the Pirates decided that Ramirez would be better served by spending a full season in Nashville, where he hit .328/.425/.546 with 21 homers (but 42 errors afield) in 1999 before a September call-up where he again struggled. He was up and down in 2000 before a left shoulder subluxation ended his season in late August; in 73 games he hit .256/.293/.402 with six homers and -1.0 WAR.

In 2001, the 23-year-old Ramirez finally began living up to the hype, starting with a three-homer game — the first of four in his career, a total tied for fifth in the Wild Card era — on April 8 against the Astros. He hit .300/.350/.536 with 34 homers, 112 RBI, and 4.1 WAR, but after signing a three-year, $9.5 million extension in February 2002, he slumped to .234/.279/.387 and -1.3 WAR in 2002 due to the lingering effects of a sprained right ankle, suffered after he charged the mound and was tackled by 6-foot-8 Richie Sexson and other Brewers on April 17, after Ben Sheets hit him. The Pirates neglected to put him on the Disabled List after he served his seven-game suspension, and he developed a tendency to pull off the ball, sapping his offense.

Ramirez had not yet fully returned to form in 2003 when the Pirates made a ridiculously short-sighted move in the name of cutting payroll, trading him along with Kenny Lofton and cash to the Cubs for third baseman José Hernández (a pending free agent), pitching prospect Matt Bruback, and a player to be named later (infielder Bobby Hill). While Pittsburgh would go nowhere without Ramirez and only sporadically get passable play from its third basemen over the next 11 years (Hernandez and Hill combined to net -0.3 WAR for the Pirates), he would continue to haunt them as a member of rival NL Central teams, hitting .290/.371/.510 with 33 homers in 711 PA against them.

The 25-year-old Ramirez finished the 2003 season with a modest 102 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR, and hit a robust .250/.365/.591 with four homers in the postseason. Two of those homers came in an NLCS Game 4 win over the Marlins, including a first-inning grand slam off Dontrelle Willis. He drove in six of the Cubs’ eight runs in that win, but went just 1-for-9 thereafter as the team lost three straight games and fell agonizingly short of the World Series.

The 2004 season kicked off the strongest stretch of Ramirez’s career, a five-year run during which he hit .302/.366/.554 (131 OPS+) while averaging 32 homers, 105 RBI, and 3.9 WAR per year, with a high of 5.3 WAR in 2007. He did all that despite missing about 20 games per season due to injuries, most notably a left quad strain that cost him 34 games in 2005. He received down-ballot MVP consideration in all but 2005, the year he made his first All-Star team; he made his second in ’08. Amid all of that, he signed a four-year, $42 million extension in April 2005, then exercised a right to void the final two years of the deal after the 2006 season, and re-signed via a five-year, $75 million deal that included a mutual option for 2012.

(Interestingly enough, all of Ramirez’s contracts except his initial extension with the Pirates included mutual options, and the first two included the ability to opt out at some point as well. Thus, thanks to agent Paul Kinzer, he had more control than the average star when it came to managing his own career.)

While Ramirez helped the Cubs to back-to-back NL Central titles in in 2007 and ’08, he all but disappeared as they were swept in the Division Series in both years. He went 0-for-12 against the Diamondbacks in 2007, and 2-for-11 with a double against the Dodgers in ’08, and didn’t drive in a single run in either series.

Though Ramirez hit .317/.389/.516 in 2009, he missed eight weeks in the season’s first half due to a dislocated left shoulder, suffered while making a diving, backhanded stop of a Ryan Braun grounder. His 2010 season was limited to 124 games due to a left thumb sprain and other nagging injuries that he played through in the first half. So deep was the hole he dug that despite hitting .287/.333/.556 from June 25 onward, he finished with a 95 OPS+ and -0.7 WAR. He was back to being quite productive in 2011 (.306/.361/.510, 136 OPS+), and homered 26 times that year, with career shot number 300 coming against the White Sox’ Edwin Jackson on July 1. While the rebuilding Cubs — who had just brought in Theo Epstein as their president of baseball operations — exercised their end of his $16 mutual option, he opted for free agency instead, and landed a three-year-plus-mutual-option, $36 million deal with the Brewers, who were coming off a 96-win season and NL Central title. While he set a new career high with 5.6 WAR in 2012, hitting .300/.360/.540 (136 OPS+) with 27 homers, a league-high 50 doubles, and a rare positive DRS (+4), the Brewers regressed to 83 wins.

Ramirez’s remaining time in Milwaukee wasn’t as productive. He hit for a 127 OPS+ in 2013, his age-35 season, but was limited to 92 games due to recurrent left knee woes. While he made his third and final All-Star team in 2014, he played in just 133 games while missing time due to a left hamstring strain, and faded in the second half. Both he and the Brewers exercised their ends of his $14 million mutual option for 2015, but the team lost 17 of its first 21 games, and was 10 out of first place by the end of April. Ramirez hit just .247/.295/.430 before being traded back to the Pirates for pitching prospect Yhonathan Barrios on July 23, 2015 — 12 years to the day since he was traded to the Cubs. The deal gave the Pirates an extra infield bat to offset the light-hitting Jordy Mercer. While Ramirez began his second tour of Pittsburgh in a 4-for-34 funk, he hit a respectable .272/.333/.463 from August 5 onward while helping the Pirates to their third straight Wild Card appearance.

In a cool full-circle moment, Ramirez took an at-bat as a pinch-hitter in the 2015 Wild Card Game against the Cubs, but he did not get a storybook ending. With one on and one out in the seventh inning, and the Pirates down 4-0, he grounded into an inning-ending double play against Jake Arrieta. Making good on the intention he announced during spring training, he retired in November, though he was just 37 years old. “I’m not pulling out because I don’t like baseball, but because I want to be with my family,” he said. “I’m almost certain that I’ll stay involved in baseball, but I don’t know in what [capacity] yet.”

Given his big offensive numbers, it’s fair to wonder why Ramirez doesn’t get more than a passing mention in the context of Hall of Fame discussion. The answer, mainly, is context. Playing in a hitter-friendly era, his 115 OPS+ and 170 batting runs (the hitting component in Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR) are better than just five of the 15 Hall of Fame third basemen, with Brooks Robinson the only one elected by the BBWAA… and on the other side of the ball, Ramirez was no Brooks Robinson. Via Baseball-Reference, his 86 runs below average afield is the eighth-lowest total among players who spent the majority of their careers at third base, 56 runs lower than the lowest Hall of Famer (Pie Traynor). What’s more, his baserunning grades out at 31 runs below average, and his double play avoidance at 23 below average; the combination is 21 runs worse than any Hall third baseman, though Hall catchers Ernie Lombardi and Mike Piazza are in the neighborhood, as are slow-footed sluggers Frank Thomas and Harmon Killebrew. In fact, Ramirez’s -54 runs in this context is the eighth-lowest of any player since 1933, which is as far back as even partial GIDP data data goes.

Thus Ramirez’s 32.4 WAR ranks only 66th among third basemen, and his 30.9 JAWS ranks 62nd, nearly 25 points below the standard. That’s not to pick on him, for his was an exceptional career.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Psychic... Powerless...
3 years ago

Fair assessment as usual, and you were kind not to mention the time a pop-up bounced off his head.