Comparing baseball players is almost never fair, but is completely inevitable. Mike Trout is the next Mickey Mantle. Francisco Lindor is the next Roberto Alomar. Every draft pick is proclaimed to be the next Clayton Kershaw or Ken Griffey Jr. by the broadcast crew in June. While some of these are more outlandish than others, they are always made. One that hasn’t to this point, however, is for one of the most popular players on the team, Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez has had a very odd and dynamic career. He was probably called up a little too early because the team needed a pinch runner in 2013 and he jumped straight from AA to the Majors. He played poorly as a utility man/short stop in the Majors in 2014 and 2015, but succeeded in Columbus both years. He didn’t come into his own until 2016 at just 23 years old when he was inserted into the starting line-up as left fielder, then third baseman.
While it’s only two weeks into the 2017 season, it certainly seems like Ramirez is much closer to the MVP candidate he was in 2016 than the struggling utility man he was before that. He hits for power and average and has great presence and speed on the base paths. Defensively, he is Gold Glove quality at second, at least league average at third and willing to play any outfield position. That kind of player is certainly unique and it’s hard to think of any reasonable comparisons in recent Indians history.
Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores are a fun way to start a search like this and hilariously, Ramirez’s top comp is former Indians utility man Lou Merloni. Of course, this is determined by mathematical formula rather than opinion and some tricky things are going on here to confuse those numbers. The two hitters have a similar career line at .279/.335/.415 for Ramirez and .271/.332/.384 for Merloni and both players played mostly in the infield at second, short and third, but also played in the outfield. Here’s the part where the rap breaks down.
Merloni didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 27 and once he did, he never played more than 85 games in a season. He had very similar numbers each year, averaging to a similar OBP and average as Ramirez, although Ramirez has shown considerably more speed and power. For Ramirez, speed has always been a constant, but his power, average and OBP didn’t start to rise until 2016. Since his return to the team in August of 2015, this has been Ramirez’s stat line:
|After Aug 2015||50||162||31||42||8||3||5||19||19||15||2||3||.259||.337||.438|
|Since Aug 2015||216||779||123||237||57||6||20||110||69||84||24||10||.304||.361||.470|
Merloni probably had dreams where he was an MLB starter, but even in those dreams he wasn’t the hitter Ramirez is now and will be. Because he’s only 24 and only has full seasons through age 23, the comp system on BR breaks down. One of the closest guys on there is Matt Duffy, currently rehabbing from heel surgery, but Duffy is only 26 himself.
Duffy didn’t have the first few years that Ramirez did, breaking out when he was 24 and finishing second in the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year. That season, with 28 doubles, 12 steals and 12 home runs was near to Ramirez in 2016. Duffy was traded last season and missed time with injury, but had decent but not great numbers, likely making up for Ramirez’s poor early seasons.
Going back to everyone’s favorite comp, Lindor and Alomar, the 1990’s Indian that could be most easily compared to Ramirez is Carlos Baerga. In 1992, like Ramirez was in 2016, Baerga was 23 years old and, while it wasn’t his first full season, it was his breakout year. Baerga was selected to the All-Star game and ended up hitting 20 home runs, 32 doubles and ten steals. He hit .312/.354/.455, again fairly near identical to Ramirez in 2016. While Baerga was exclusively a second baseman during his early years, he moved to third later in his career when his speed and range decreased. Ramirez is best at second, but will likely move back to third as soon as Jason Kipnis returns. Despite this, the future is unknown and there’s little question that the Indians defense is best with a double play combination of Lindor and Ramirez.
Beyond stats and positions, Baerga and Ramirez had a few other things in common. Both are switch hitters who throw right handed and have a similar body shape and size as Baerga came in at 5’11” 165 lb while Ramirez is 5’9″ 165 lb (obviously, Baerga added a few more in his later years, which is where the Diamondbacks pic is from).
Often, the purpose of comparing players is to attempt to predict the future. This is where it almost always fails because nearly anything can happen in baseball. Of course, Baerga was dominant early in his career, winning two Silver Sluggers and going to three All-Star games by 26 years old. After that, he didn’t have another elite season although he would play through 2005 when he was 36 years old.
As Ramirez continues to play, his comparisons will become more accurate and less necessary as he makes a unique name for himself. For the sake of one last one for now, however, my favorite player considered most similar to Ramirez at age 23 (not including this season) is former Indians third baseman Bill Bradley. For a modern player to compare to one who began his career in 1899 is interesting on it’s own and this one isn’t too far off. Bradley hit for a high average, had great power for a deadball hitter and stole a decent amount of bases for a corner infielder. During his 1902 season, which would correlate to Ramirez in 2017, he hit 11 home runs (the Cleveland Bronchos hit 33 as a team that year), 39 doubles, 12 triples and stole 11 bases while hitting .340 (MLB average was .267 compared to .241 so far in 2017). It isn’t too hard to imagine the modern equivalent of this season for Ramirez this year, especially since he has already hit four home runs and knocked in 15 in 14 games. Bradley would remain a dominant player through age 28 and an above average Major Leaguer through age 30.