Through Monday morning, José Ramírez has nearly accomplished something very unusual, which to-date has only been done once in baseball history. With just 0.1 WAR in separation, or roughly one run, Ramírez has almost caught Mike Trout. While one might ideally like Derek Fisher – or at least someone named Fry, Cook, or Giantbearpaw – to best a Trout, it’s Ramírez, the still-young Cleveland third baseman, overshadowed as a prospect by Francisco Lindor, who is leading the charge.
Trout, of course, hasn’t just been squeaking out WAR leads, as the average result during his five full, healthy seasons has been a 1.1 WAR lead over the second-place position player, terrorizing the error bars as thoroughly as major-league pitching. Only Bryce Harper has matched Trout so far, a player linked with the Angels center fielder while a prospect but one who has generally fallen short.
Even in Trout’s injury-trimmed 2017, during which he only played 114 games, he still finished fourth among hitters with a 6.9 WAR. That was good enough to be the fifth-best season for a player who appeared in fewer than 120 games since 1901, behind George Brett, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Mike Schmidt, all players you may have heard of.
Ramírez didn’t explode onto the baseball scene as Trout did; in fact, he has been a bit of a surprise. The ZiPS projection season liked him as a prospect, but it didn’t fall CPU-over-RAM in love with him, seeing him more as a cordial fan. Trout is still the favorite, but ZiPS gives him a 35% chance of being surpassed by Ramírez in the year-end WAR count, something that’s awfully hard to do.
After his 2013 stint in Double-A, Ramírez got his first official ZiPS projection for the 2014 season. The computer pegged him at .267/.308/.346 at second base, good for 1.5 WAR in 116 games. While a league-average projection for a 21-year-old is impressive, I can’t make any claim to ZiPS predicting players achieving superstar status.
In 2015, Ramírez’s projection was similar at .263/.304/.360, good for a 90 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR over 138 projected games. This was largely thanks to a .302/.360/.441 Triple-A season in 2014 followed by a .262/.300/.346 line in his first real stint with the Indians. That was enough to get him almost into the top 20 in ZiPS (he would’ve been a top-five prospect in my 2015 list if he hadn’t already lost his Rookie of the Year qualifications).
In 2015, Ramírez began the season as the starting shortstop for Cleveland, and while I don’t have any inside knowledge of Cleveland’s reasoning, I would imagine they wanted to see what they had in Ramírez at short before Lindor hit the majors and cleared out the rest of the suitors, as Odysseus did in legend upon his return to Ithaca.
And what he showed wasn’t that much, at least initially. His defense wasn’t great, at -6 in UZR and -2 in DRS over fewer than 400 innings in 2015. When demoted in June, he was only hitting an Alcidian .180/.247/.240. By the time he returned to the majors in August, Ramírez had lost the shortstop job to the aforementioned Lindor for good, and hit .259/.337/.438, mostly filling in for Jason Kipnis and Giovanny Urshela, both nursing shoulder injuries.
ZiPS still believed in Ramírez going into 2016, but didn’t see quite as much upside, with his 2015 dropping him to 43rd in rest-of-career ZiPS WAR with a .262/.316/.383 line and a 1.9 WAR projection.
By now, you know how the rest of this story went. Ramírez burst into stardom in 2016, hitting .312/.363/.462, good for a 121 wRC+ and 4.8 WAR. Then he got even better in 2017. And this year, he’s ridden the saber-limousine all the way to Crazyville. As of Monday morning, Ramírez stands at .300/.409/.631 with 33 home runs, 26 stolen bases, a 175 wRC+ and 7.5 WAR, all already career highs (except for batting average) and by substantial margins. You can even make a case that he’s actually been a little unlucky, doing all of this with a .277 BABIP, down 23 points from his career average of .300. From his hit profile, ZiPS thinks Ramírez “ought to” have a .315 BABIP this year, or .302 by Andrew Perpetua’s model.
My colleague Jay Jaffe wrote about the greatest seasons by a third baseman a few months ago, so I won’t go too into detail, but I will touch on a few important points.
For position players as a group, the 10-WAR seasons in history can be distributed into a few buckets:
Out of those 52 seasons, 50 were players in the first two categories, all with nearly indisputable Hall of Fame talent. Cash isn’t quite as obvious, but he’s at least a borderline category and better than quite a few other Cooperstown-immortalized sluggers. That just leaves Dunlap and his curious 1884 for the St. Louis Maroons, as he hit .412/.448/.621 as a 25-year-old and never hit .275 again. I am unable to find any accusations of performance-enhancing tincture or tonic, so I’ll assume that this was another case of 1800s-baseball-gonna-1800s-baseball, given the variability of play quality at the time.
The mean projection for Ramírez by ZIPS for the rest of the season puts him at 9.7 WAR, tantalizingly close to the 10-WAR barrier, which has been broken by exactly zero third basemen in MLB history. Only Darrell Evans, Adrian Beltre, Rodriguez, and Ron Santo made it to within a half-win of ten. What this means is that as of right now, ZiPS is projecting José Ramírez to have a 53% chance at the greatest season by a third baseman in history and a 20% chance of being the first to hit ten WAR.
Ramírez’s season is not being driven by some freakishly high defensive WAR number, something you occasionally see given how volatile defensive measurements tend to be. The former shortstop’s defense only amounts to 8.7% of his total WAR, 51st among the 85 seven-WAR seasons by third basemen. A few players have seen this share go to over a third, headed by Brooks Robinson’s 1968, in which fielding makes up 58% of his WAR, (Graig Nettles and Robin Ventura both had seasons over 33%).
Naturally, all this uncontrolled awesomeness has altered Ramírez’s career-trajectory, tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis and all that jazz. In this year’s FanGraphs trade value series, Kiley McDaniel ranked Ramírez as the player with the greatest trade value in baseball, up from 15th in last year’s edition.
Unsurprisingly, the occasionally anthropomorphic projection system on my desk has also adjusted its gaze. Ramírez’s 2016 campaign got him back up to 25th in future WAR and over 2000 hits for his career. His 2017 rocketed him up to 8th, third-best of players 25 or older for the 2018 season, behind only Trout and Mookie Betts (and their 2500 hits).
As you probably have guessed, 2018 shoots Ramírez even higher in the long-term projections. His top-five near-age offensive comps are all Hall of Famers or should be (Santo, Ernie Banks, Scott Rolen, Chipper Jones, and Brett). Over the next five years, ZiPS projects 32.5 WAR, more than six wins a year, and 52 total WAR remaining, third among position players only behind Trout and Lindor. He already passed the 2500 hit mark in the projections; now he’s up at 350 homers as well. And with some simple math, all of a sudden, his projected final rank among third basemen puts him in Hall of Fame territory.
You can shift these rankings around a little depending on how you categorize players like Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, but there’s only limited play possible with these numbers, and however you shuffle the deck, Ramírez is one of the very few players projected to finish with a career of historical, plaqued significance. Projection systems just aren’t designed for exuberance.
José Ramírez is heading on a course that could see him end up as one of the greatest Indians players in history and one of the greatest third basemen, period. And thanks to some shrewd wheeling-and-dealing by the team’s front office to sign him to a five-year, $26 million contract after his initial breakout in 2016, he’s going to be doing it in Cleveland through the 2023 season. Ramírez is now in his third consecutive year of doing things we didn’t know were possible for him; if he manages to pull this off for a fourth, he may just break baseball.
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.