José Ramírez and the Greatest Third-Base Seasons Ever

Though he was voted into the starting lineup of the American League All-Star team last year and finished third in MVP voting, as well José Ramírez is still something of an under-the-radar star. Perhaps it’s because he plays in Cleveland rather than a larger, more glamorous market. Maybe it’s because he plays alongside — but also the shadow of — Francisco Lindor, an elite shortstop who’s 14 months younger. It’s conceivable that Ramirez’s early-career struggles and the fact that he shares his name with a Braves pitcher contribute to his lower profile as well.

Regardless, with the strong start to his 2018 season — and particularly a torrid May, during which he recorded a 214 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR, tied with Lindor for the MLB high) — the 25-year-old switch-hitter is now fifth in WAR since the start of 2016, behind only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant and Jose Altuve (15.6 WAR, 0.7 ahead of the sixth-place Lindor). By any standard, he deserves to be considered among the game’s top-tier players.

What’s more, Ramírez has put himself in position to do something that no third baseman has ever done: post a season of at least 10 wins (hat-tip to reader GERB who pointed this out in my most recent chat). Through Saturday, he had compiled 4.1 WAR in the Indians’ 57 games (he sat out one), an 11.7 WAR pace, though he’s not the only player on such a breakneck clip. Trout entered Sunday on an astonishing 13.5-win pace (4.9 WAR in 59 Angels games), and Betts on a 10.5 WAR pace (4.1 in 63 games — the number the Red Sox will have played when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list on June 8).

Ten-win seasons at any position are, of course, quite rare, and while there’s nothing magical about that plateau beyond our inherent fascination with the decimal system, getting to double-digits is still pretty cool. Via FanGraphs’ methodology, there have been just 51 different 10 WAR seasons since 1901, one for every 249 batting title-qualified player-seasons. Just over half of those (26), occurred before World War II (one for every 139 qualified seasons) when the wider spread of talent made it easier for individual players to dominate. Babe Ruth (nine) and Rogers Hornsby (six) account for more than half of those prewar seasons, with Ty Cobb (three), Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, and Ted Williams (two apiece) the other repeat customers. Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, and Tris Speaker round out the prewar group, and Williams is the only player to have a 10-win season during the war (1942, before he himself missed three seasons in the military).

Of the 24 postwar 10-win seasons (one for every 365 qualified seasons), five belong to Barry Bonds, four to Willie Mays, three to Mickey Mantle, and two apiece to Williams and Mike Trout. Lou Boudreau, Norm Cash, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Stan Musial, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, and Carl Yastrzemski each had one such season. Fourteen of their seasons occurred from 1946 to 1975, with the other 10 coming from 1990 onward.

Every position is represented within the 10-win group save for two. One of those is catcher, a position marked not only by playing-time constraints but also a different set of defensive criteria. The other is third basemen.

10 WAR Seasons by Position, 1901-2017
Pos 10 WAR Seasons
C 0
1B 4
2B 8
SS 5
3B 0
LF 11
CF 14
RF 9
Total 51

While third basemen have reached 9.0 WAR in a season on 12 occasions, none has managed to reach double digits. A look at the component breakdowns offers a hint as to why:

Top WAR Seasons by Third Basemen, 1901-2017
Rk Name Team Season wRC+ Bat BsR Fld Pos WAR
1 Darrell Evans Braves 1973 158 49.0 0.4 17.0 2.6 9.7
2 Adrian Beltre Dodgers 2004 161 51.7 -2.2 25.5 2.3 9.7
3 Alex Rodriguez Yankees 2007 175 66.5 7.7 -2.4 1.8 9.6
4 Ron Santo Cubs 1967 153 40.8 -1.1 18.0 4.0 9.5
5 Mike Schmidt Phillies 1974 157 44.1 0.6 18.0 3.9 9.4
6 Mike Schmidt Phillies 1977 155 44.2 0.3 20.0 3.6 9.2
7 Al Rosen Indians 1953 178 66.5 -0.6 0.0 1.9 9.1
8 Frank Baker Athletics 1912 166 51.7 3.0 9.0 4.6 9.1
9 George Brett Royals 1980 198 59.2 0.5 9.0 0.6 9.1
10 Alex Rodriguez Yankees 2005 174 64.4 2.2 -2.5 2.3 9.1
11 Scott Rolen Cardinals 2004 159 45.0 4.4 21.3 2.1 9.0
12 Mike Schmidt Phillies 1980 172 52.9 0.3 11.0 0.9 9.0

As you can see, half of the top dozen seasons featured elite defense that was at least 17 runs above average, but they’re in the lower half among this group in terms of batting value. Meanwhile, the three best seasons in terms of batting value — two by Rodriguez, one by Rosen (whose season was worth 10.1 WAR in the Baseball-Reference version, making him the only player to reach the plateau via their methodology) — were backed with negligible defensive contributions, though at least the 2002 version of A-Rod brought some outstanding baserunning. Schmidt, who ranks first in JAWS at the position, simply couldn’t align his peak offensive and defensive seasons.

One of the above seasons is not like the others, and no, I’m not referring to Beltre, whose 2004 season was valued at 10.1 WAR by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference circa 2011, before the two sites agreed to unify replacement level. Every third baseman with a WAR of at least 9.0 except for Brett played at least 149 games, but the Royals’ third baseman was limited to 117 games in 1980, mainly due to an ankle injury that sidelined him from June 11 through the All-Star break. (He was back July 10.) Hitting .337/.407/.609 at the time he went down, he returned to put on a hitting display the likes of which hasn’t been seen since, batting .456/.511/.714 in 237 plate appearances through the end of August, striking out just five times in that span, and peeling off a 30-game hitting streak along the way. From August 17 through September 17, he played 23 games (missing another nine). After 16 of them, his batting average remained at or above .400, making him the last player to carry a shot at the mark so late in the season. (Tony Gwynn hit for a .394 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season, but never reached .400.) A 4-for-29 slump in late September spelled the end of Brett’s quest; he finished at .390/.454/.664, still good for a slash-stat Triple Crown. Prorated to 150 games, his season would have left the others in the dust at 11.7 WAR.

As for Ramírez, he entered Sunday hitting .301/.395/.630 for a 173 wRC+, fourth in the AL behind Betts (212), Trout (205), and J.D. Martinez (174). He’s well above his previous career high in wRC+ (148, set last year) because he’s hit for a career-best 190 wRC+ (.306/.417/.673) against righties thus far, with a 15.4% walk rate and just a 9.7% strikeout rate. One has to expect some amount of regression in there, and yet his .261 BABIP in that split is 58 points below his mark in 2016-17 — which is to say that there’s also room to improve, particularly given his age.

What gives Ramírez a shot at a 10-win season is that he’s not reliant just upon his bat to get there. His baserunning has been worth an extra 2.6 runs, and via that measure he’s been worth as much as 8.6 extra runs in a season (2016, though he was right at average last year). He’s at 5.9 UZR, and while he’s never been above 3.7 at the hot corner in a season before, he’s also never played a full season there, having started 47 times in left field in 2016 (plus another six at second base and shortstop) and 65 times at second base last year; his career UZR/150 at the hot corner is 10.8. All of which is to say that he may not need to be 60 runs above average with the bat to get to 10 WAR.

Of course, the woods are filled with players who were on pace for big numbers through the season’s first couple of months, only to get lost before reaching season’s end. A quick look through the past decade’s top early-season WARriors is instructive. All but one of the previous 10 years (2016) featured at least one player who was on pace for 10.0 WAR or better through the end of May, yet only one of those players even finished with 9.0 or better:

10 WAR Pace Through May, 2008-2017
Player Team Year Thru May Pace Final
Lance Berkman Astros 2008 4.6 13.1 7.7
Jose Bautista Blue Jays 2011 4.3 12.7 8.1
Justin Morneau Twins 2010 3.9 12.4 4.9
Miguel Cabrera Tigers 2013 3.7 11.3 8.6
Chipper Jones Braves 2008 3.9 11.3 7.1
Chase Utley Phillies 2008 3.9 11.1 8.2
Chris Davis Orioles 2013 3.7 10.9 7.0
Bryce Harper Nationals 2015 3.3 10.7 9.3
Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 2015 3.2 10.6 7.2
Josh Hamilton Rangers 2012 3.3 10.5 4.8
Troy Tulowitzki Rockies 2014 3.6 10.4 5.1
Evan Longoria Rays 2010 3.3 10.3 7.5
Albert Pujols Cardinals 2008 3.6 10.2 8.7
Mike Trout Angels 2017 3.5 10.1 6.9
Evan Longoria Rays 2009 3.3 10.1 7.1
Average 3.7 11.0 7.2

Injuries played a large role in dousing these hot starts, significantly shortening the seasons of Morneau (who didn’t play after July 7 due to a concussion), Tulowitzki and Trout, the last of whom had already missed nine games by the end of May due to the torn ligament in his left thumb. If you’re wondering how the Angels’ prodigy fared to this point in his two 10-win seasons, recall that in 2012, he didn’t even debut until April 28, making his 10.0 WAR that year all the more remarkable. He was on an 8.5-win pace through May 2013 (2.9 in 55 games) and basically spent the season “overcoming” a 0.8 WAR April with successive months of 2.1, 1.8, 1.9, 2.0 and 1.5 WAR to finish at 10.1. As you can see, Harper’s 9.3 WAR campaign in 2015 was the only one that came close to paydirt; the average season above missed the mark by about 35%. Regression can be brutal.

All of which is to say that the odds are still stacked against Ramírez making it to 10 WAR. Still, his potentially historic clip makes his pace worth watching — and so does the player, who’s simply one of the game’s most exciting young dynamos. Don’t overlook him.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

I think you’re missing “defensive” in the line about Schmidt combining his best seasons.

Loved the article–especially since I’ve loved Ramirez before he went all-world on baseball! : )