Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Appreciating Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez is congratulated after his solo home run last night (BeaumontEnterprise)
The Milwaukee Brewers, as you may have heard, are off to a fabulous start. They won nine games in a row before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals Monday (and again last night). At 10-4 they have the best record in baseball (tied with Oakland), and everyone's wondering if this is merely an early season fluke or the first step towards contention for a team that lost 88 games last year and barely finished above .500 the year before.

So with the Brewers firing on all cylinders, I decided not to write about lightning rod Ryan Braun, or likely MVP candidate Carlos Gomez, or up-and-comers Khris Davis/Jean Segura, or the starting rotation, or Francisco Rodriguez. I wanted to talk about Aramis Ramirez for a minute.

The 35 year-old third baseman has been one of the main driving forces behind Milwaukee's early surge. He's played all 14 games thus far and has done his job as the team's cleanup leader, leading the Brew Crew with 12 RBI and driving in at least one run in ten games (eight of which were victories). He's also batting a scintillating .351, which leads the team as well.

And yet nobody seems to talk about Ramirez. He's made only two All-Star teams and has received only one Silver Slugger, which is strange considering he's one of the best-hitting third basemen of all-time. He has more home runs (356) than all but a dozen third basemen, including Dick Allen, Ron Santo, and George Brett. He ranks twelfth in doubles (443--more than Mike Schmidt) and has knocked in more runs (1,288) than Edgar Martinez, Matt Williams and Ken Boyer. His .501 career slugging percentage ranks 11th at the position, just a hair below the .509 career marks of Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.

(Quick tangent--for reasons I still don't understand, Ramirez was given the NL Hank Aaron Award, which honors the most outstanding offensive performer in each league, in 2008. While his season was very good--.289//380/.518, 27 homers, 111 RBI, 44 doubles--nothing about it qualifies as outstanding. How the award didn't go to Albert Pujols (1.114 OPS) or Ryan Howard (48 home runs, 146 RBI) or Lance Berkman (.986 OPS) is beyond me.)

If he can hang on a few more seasons, Ramirez will likely finish his career with around 500 doubles, 400 home runs, and 1,400 to 1,500 RBI, which, combined with his solid rate stats (.286/.345/.501), would make him one of the ten best offensive third basemen to ever play the game.

He's done so by quietly and consistently producing great numbers for over a decade, first with Pittsburgh, then with the Cubs, now with the Brewers. Starting in 2001, when he was just a 22 year-old kid with the Pirates who batted .300/.350/.536 with 34 home runs, 112 RBI, 40 doubles and 323 total bases, he's averaged 26 home runs and 93 RBI per season. During that span, he hit more home runs and piled up more RBI than any third baseman besides Alex Rodriguez (who was a shortstop until 2004) and Miguel Cabrera (who spent a lot more time at other positions, namely first base and outfield).

In that same span, Ramirez batted over .300 seven times. He topped 25 home runs ten times, exceeding 30 on four occasions. He had seven seasons with at least 100 RBI. He surpassed 30 doubles nine times, clubbing as many as 50 in 2012, when he led the league (his only meaningful black ink, unless you like sacrifice flies, in which case Ramirez was tops in 2002 and 2003). His OPS+ has been over 120 ten times.

(What impresses me most about Ramirez is that in this era of free-swingers, he's had only one season with triple digit strikeouts--100 on the nose in 2001).

Whenever Ramirez has fallen, he always comes back just as strong as before. When he nosedived in 2002 (to a woeful .666 OPS) following his breakout season, be bounced back with 27 home runs and 106 RBI in 2003. When he missed the final 35 games of 2005 with a strained quad, Ramirez rebounded with arguably the best season of his career in 2006 (career high 38 home runs, 119 RBI, and 333 total bases). When his career looked like it was headed south in his early 30s after he missed half of 2009 and slumped in 2010, he revived his bat like fellow Dominican David Ortiz and hit as well as he ever did.

Now in his age-36 season, he's proving he still has something left in the tank after missing 70 games last year. Like always, he's returned to form in the wake of a setback. The resilient Ramirez is doing what he's always done: hit.

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