Congratulations sports fans, you have successfully killed the GOAT. While this may just seem like old man ramblings, the excessive use of the term GOAT or Greatest of All Time, has completely removed any meaning.
It’s funny how the word has transformed over the years in the world of sports. From the earliest time I can remember the term goat being used in sports, there was only one and that was Bill Buckner. At the time, it was an insult, placing the entirety of the blame for the 1986 World Series on his shoulders and was unquestionably a bad thing. Over the years, however, there was a switch and the 1990’s Mohammed Ali referred to himself as the GOAT and in the following decade, Michael Jordan became the first to be regularly called that by fans.
Nearly 20 years later, the term has been deprived of meaning. There’s little argument that in the year 2000, Jordan was literally the greatest basketball player of all time. I don’t watch boxing, but it’s generally taken that Ali was the greatest boxer. Even here, however, the term greatest needs a qualifier. Without the qualifier, what does the term greatest even mean? Greatest human being? That could be a lot of people, but chances are it wouldn’t be an athlete. The word greatest by itself means there can be only one and if you just use the term GOAT, it can’t be Ali and Jordan at the same time, because one must be better than the other. Who’s to say that Isaac Newton isn’t the GOAT for his contributions to society?
A quick search on twitter in late July looking for the goat emoji () brought up the following GOATs: Jose Ramirez, Ronaldo, R Kelly, James Jones, Lavar Ball, Odell Beckham, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Eminem, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the list goes on and on. Obviously, at least one of those was meant sarcastically and all meant the greatest in their specific field (except Eminem, who is up there with Newton), but from now on, I’m just going to focus on one of those names. The man who has been called GOAT so many times, it’s now his semi-official nickname, Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez is unquestionably the greatest hitter on the Indians right now. If GOAT stood for, Greatest (Indians hitter) At The (moment), then yes, it describes him. He’s not necessarily the best player on the team, however, as Corey Kluber should hold that title and he’s not the best defender, that’s Bradley Zimmer. When people call him the GOAT, however, they aren’t just talking about the Indians or today. Just looking at this season, Ramirez is definitely in the running for AL MVP (as he was last year), but he ranks 11th in fWAR among all Major Leaguers, just slightly ahead of Mike Trout who has over 150 fewer plate appearances and has missed most of the season with injury.
This is not to disparage Ramirez, who has been excellent, just to point out that his nickname is dumb. For the sake of argument, however, let’s change the parameters a bit. What if GOAT actually mean the Greatest Indians third baseman of All-Time. No one is actually comparing Jordan to Ali when both are called the GOAT, so maybe we should only compare Ramirez to those who have played his position for the Tribe.
Starting with fWAR as a qualifier and throwing out Jim Thome, who was primarily known as a first baseman, Ramirez currently ranks 12th among Indians third basemen, despite playing almost 300 fewer games than anyone above him. This brings up another squishy variable. Which is more important, peak greatness or long term greatness?
Looking at Indians pitchers, there are two who could be considered the greatest, Bob Feller (as everyone knows) and Addie Joss (as many don’t). While Feller holds almost all the Indians counting stat records (including fWAR) thanks to his lengthy career, Joss holds almost all the rate records and, despite an incredibly short career due to his untimely death in 1911, is near the top in many counting stats as well. If you’re talking extended greatness, Feller is unquestionably the greatest Indians pitcher of all time. If you’re talking peak, however, it was Joss.
Back to Ramirez, offensively, he’s already been the Indians fourth best third baseman for a career, despite the lack of games played compared to the competition. Defensively, he’s 11th, although many of the players listed above him played quite a bit at other positions, most notably Terry Turner at short stop. The problem for Ramirez is, two true third basemen beat him not only in offensive production, but with the glove as well. While the Indians don’t have a third baseman in the Hall of Fame, Bill Bradley and Ken Keltner are about as close to Hall of Fame talent as you can get without getting in.
Bradley was one of few original players from the 1901 team who stuck around, playing from 1901 through 1910 with Cleveland (so few have even heard of him). However, if Ramirez wants to be the Greatest of All Time, he has to be better than the original. Not only was Bradley considered a stalwart defender at the time, he currently ranks first in Indians history with 94 .5 runs saved above average in over 1,200 games for the Tribe. At the same time, he was one of the top offensive players of the day, worth 56.9 runs above average over his career and posting three consecutive seasons with an fWAR above 6.3 from 1902 through 1904. He was a great defender for a long time and he had a great, but short, offensive peak. Ramirez’s peak, from 2016-2017 so far, hasn’t matched Bradley’s (when adjusted for the era) and his defense is no where near what we believe Bradley’s to be.
Of course the second player is Keltner, who the standard for just missing the Hall of Fame is named after. He played all but 13 games in his 13 year career in Cleveland and won a World Series with the team in 1948. Had the Gold Glove existed, he would likely have been a perennial contender and today he is said to have been worth 65.6 runs above average defensively during his career and was well above average from 1939 through 1948. Offensively, he played a much more modern version of the game than Bradley, hitting 163 home runs, second among non-Thome Indians third basemen. Compared to the players of his age, he had only 74.2 runs above average, but even that ranks third all time for Tribe third basemen and he had individual seasons worth 16.9, 25.6 and 37.3.
It’s very possible that eventually, Ramirez will surpass both the offensive and defensive outputs of both these players (Al Rosen and Toby Harrah were each considerably better offensively than either of the two highlighted, but didn’t have the all around play that the pair and Ramirez provide), but he certainly hasn’t done it yet. While you could say, “aren’t you taking this a little far, people were just making some farm animal jokes on twitter?” My response would be that words have meaning and when you abuse those words, they lose their meaning. If you call Ramirez or Iverson or anyone else the greatest when they clearly aren’t, your opinion no longer holds any weight. You can argue that Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth is the best hitter of all time and even throw in a few others to mix it up, but including Ramirez, who sits behind more than 1,300 other players in career position player fWAR, is just silly.
Really, the purpose of this, if nothing else, is to bring up the long history of baseball and the Cleveland Indians. Years ago, I wrote a top ten list for every position for the Tribe and at the end of every season, I update those lists to reflect recent performances. While there is a modern player on nearly every list at this point (Ramirez will likely join the 3B this off-season), just because someone is freshest in your memory does not mean they are the greatest.
At any rate, continue with your hacky GOAT jokes and continue to ensure that they aren’t funny while diminishing the meaning of the phrase to the one in the title or think twice and call things as they are. Say Ramirez has been the Indians best hitter for two straight years, provides great defense and has cool hair, just don’t call him the greatest. He hasn’t earned that yet.