Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ramirez Retires

Ramirez is retiring after 18 seasons (NBC Sports)
Another very good but not quite Hall of Fame level player retired recently as baseball waved goodbye to Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez joined Torii Hunter, who retired last week, in deciding to call it quits.

There are actually quite a few parallels between their careers, besides the fact that they hung up their spikes 10 days apart. Ramirez, like Hunter, finished his career where it started--Hunter with the Twins and Ramirez with the Pirates. Hunter was a lifelong American Leaguer who spent the bulk of his career in the AL Central, while Ramirez never left the NL Central.

Their career arcs are eerily similar as well, as both struggled for a few years before breaking out in 2001. After that they remained excellent players for more than a decade, aging remarkably well and putting up similar numbers year after year. Though both made multiple postseason appearances, neither ever played in a World Series, much less won one.

And just look how close their numbers are:

Hunter: 19 yrs 498 2B 351 HR 1,391 RBI 661 BB .277/.331/.461 (110 OPS+) 4,087 TB
Ramirez: 18 yrs 495 2B 386 HR 1,417 RBI 633 BB .283/.341/.492 (115 OPS+) 4,004 TB

Ramirez debuted with Pittsburgh at 19 in 1998. Predictably, his first few years were rough as he struggled to adjust to major league pitching, but in 2001 he blossomed into one of the best-hitting third-sackers in the game. In his first full season, Ramirez mashed 34 home runs, knocked in 112, and batted a robust .300/.350/.536 (122 OPS+).

Nowadays, such a season would merit serious MVP consideration, an All-Star berth, and a Silver Slugger. But back in 2001, when cartoonishly big sluggers were putting up videogame numbers, Ramirez got no recognition of any kind. That would become a troubling trend for Ramirez, long one of the game's most under-appreciated stars (except when the fans gave him a completely undeserved Hank Aaron award in 2008).

After failing to replicate those numbers in 2002 and the first half of 2003, Pittsburgh sent him and Kenny Lofton to the Cubbies for Jose Hernandez, a minor leaguer, and a player to be named later. It's trades like that which explain how the Pirates went 20 years between winning seasons.
Ramirez was just coming into his prime. He flourished in Chicago, taking advantage of Wrigley's friendly confines (where he was a career .307/.372/.551 hitter) to emerge as an annual 30-100-.300 threat. While he wasn't the most durable player, exceeding 150 games in a season just once after leaving Pittsburgh, he always hit when he did play.

After eight and a half productive years in Chicago, Ramirez signed on with the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2012 season. Following a stellar debut with the Brew Crew, he began to decline as he reached his mid-30s. With Milwaukee rebuilding and his skills eroding, the Brewers had no need for their expensive, over-the-hill third baseman.

So this year, which Ramirez had already acknowledged would be his last, Milwaukee dealt him to a resurgent Pirates franchise, giving him one last shot at World Series glory. Like most last-ditch efforts to procure a ring, this one didn't work out. Ironically, it was Ramirez's former team, the cursed Cubs, that got in the way. In what would be the last at-bat of his career, Ramirez grounded into an inning-ending double play. Somehow, that seems appropriate.
Circling back to Hunter, Ramirez also fell short of a few big milestones. He ends his career 14 homers shy of 400, five doubles short of 500, and 83 RBI away from 1,500. Even so, his numbers are outstanding for a third baseman; he ranks 10th in the position for home runs, doubles, and RBI.

The three-time All-Star never quite got the credit he deserved for being such a tremendous hitter year-in and year-out, probably because he was playing in the shadow of superior third basemen such as Alex Rodriguez, David Wright, Chipper Jones, and Adrian Beltre. In terms of career offensive production at the position, however, few were ever better. 

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