CLEVELAND -- In one of those rare stretches when Jose Ramirez was fighting it, searching high and low for a hit, he told his teammate, Francisco Lindor, that he had a plan for that night's game: He was going to bunt every time he came to the plate.This was in
CLEVELAND -- In one of those rare stretches when Jose Ramirez was fighting it, searching high and low for a hit, he told his teammate, Francisco Lindor, that he had a plan for that night's game: He was going to bunt every time he came to the plate.
This was in Class A ball in 2012, with the Indians' affiliate in Lake County, the kind of place where a player can experiment with such a slump-buster. Still, it was an unusual idea from an unusual player, one whose intense desire to do whatever it takes to get on base has made him the defending American League champs' most legitimate, deserving Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot candidate with less than two days left in the voting.
"He literally bunted all four at-bats that game," Lindor said with a smile. "And it worked. He got two hits out of that, and then he went on a rampage from there on. He just kept hitting and hitting and hitting. Impressive."
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Even when he hit .354 in 67 games that season at Lake County, the experts did not rate Ramirez as a high-grade prospect.
Even when he ascended all the way to the big leagues the very next season, got more opportunity in 2014 and was starting at shortstop early in '15, Ramirez was viewed as little more than a placeholder for the more highly touted Lindor.
And even now, after Ramirez has definitively proven his 2016 breakout with the best overall numbers among AL third basemen, he needs help at the online ballot box to get his deserving spot in the starting lineup at the MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on July 11 in Miami.
Ramirez leads AL third basemen in average (.323), OPS (.940), wRC+ (147), fWAR (3.0) and bWAR (2.7). He's solidified his case with an unbelievable June in which he's cranked out five homers, 12 doubles and two triples in 101 at-bats, including a streak of nine games with multiple hits.
"If he's not an All-Star," said manager Terry Francona, "I'm not sure who is."
Ramirez has been strutting through the Indians' clubhouse in a manner Francona has likened to that of George Jefferson from the day he got to the Majors, and well before that.
"I've always been the same person, ever since I was a little kid," Ramirez said through interpreter Anna Bolton. "I've always had the confidence I have now."
But just because Ramirez constantly projects confidence and churns out hits doesn't mean he's garnered the attention he deserves. Lindor is the Indians' more magnetic burgeoning superstar; Corey Kluber the stoic, October-tested ace; Edwin Encarnacion the high-profile pickup; Michael Brantley the one-time AL Most Valuable Player Award finalist; Andrew Miller the sensational shutdown setup man. But here in 2017, Ramirez has been the club's best player.
Slight of stature (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) but steady of bat, Ramirez has become the Tribe's modern-day version of 1995 Carlos Baerga, providing punch from both sides of the plate with a low K rate. And like 2016 Jose Altuve, he hasn't let his size get in the way of a potential power spike.
Whereas so much of Ramirez's value last year rested in his ability to play all over the field while contributing in the clutch, this year, he's been slotted into one spot and turned on a booming bat. With his 12th homer of the season Saturday, he exceeded his 2016 total in 319 fewer plate appearances. His homer/fly-ball rate has doubled, from 6.0 percent to 12.4.
And Ramirez is only 24.
"It's pretty impressive the way he's doing things right now," Lindor said. "It's fun to watch."
At last count, Ramirez trailed the Twins' Miguel Sano by 209,000 votes. Yes, Sano, who is roughly the size of two Ramirezes and has more home runs (18 to 12), but there is no question which player has provided more value in the field and on the basepaths, and Ramirez's overall offensive value is illustrated in the other, all-encompassing metrics.
Believe it or not, the Twins nearly had both of these guys. Back in 2009, Indians scout Ramon Pena saw a then-16-year-old Ramirez in the Dominican, liked him and offered him $50,000. Ramirez agreed. But then the Twins swooped in and offered him twice as much. Ramirez wanted to renege on his deal with the Tribe, but Pena talked him out of it.
"If I had signed with the Twins," Ramirez said, "I could have been suspended. They would have sent me back to my house to fix things. Thank God I didn't do that, because everything changed, and I became a better player with Cleveland."
In 2017, no third baseman has been better. Ramirez no longer has to prove '16 wasn't a fluke, no longer has to put down a bunt to spark himself. He has been as All-Star worthy as they come.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.