This past week I found myself somehow listening to Cleveland sports talk radio, specifically 92.3 THE FAN, during their midday show involving two indeterminate guys talking poorly informed Cleveland Indians baseball. Amid their talk about how the Indians need more power despite their being third in the American League in slugging, or not scoring enough runs despite being second in the league in that catagory, Jose Ramirez came up. Specifically, how one host considered him to be the MVP of the Cleveland Indians. Considering Ramirez’s status as a major leaguer even 16 months ago, it’s incredible to consider, and even more incredible to actually see credence to it.
Obviously, there are no MVP winners on the Cleveland Indians. Really, the AL MVP is Mike Trout, because he’s the best in baseball. Maybe Josh Donaldson again, since his team is actually chasing a playoff spot.
Ramirez makes an unconventional case for the Indians' MVP
It’s not to say that Ramirez doesn’t have some kind of case. He doesn’t lead the Tribe in power numbers normally associated with any kind of MVP, but he’s got a lot going for him. The biggest being, he’s done a great job of essentially replacing Michael Brantley. I know what you’re thinking - there’s no replacing what Brantley brings to the table. Just imagine how great they’d be with him. And to a degree, that would be right. But now look at this:
|Ramirez's last 365 days||.302||12||.815||122|
To add to that, projection systems had Brantley hitting .301 this year with a 123 wRC+. This year so far Ramirez has hit .311 with a 124 wRC+. Whether or not Brantley would have outperformed those projections is up for debate, but the theoretical Brantley has been replaced by a player who those same projections said was going to hit .274 with a 94 wRC+.
Brantley is seen as the Indians MVP the last few years, which makes sense since he was third in MVP voting in 2014. As these numbers show, his 2015 was in fact better than the last 365 days of Jose Ramirez, but it’s rather astounding how much smaller the gap is than one would think. Brantley has been down for the year, and rather than suffering for it, the Indians had most of the offensive production from left field they expected from Brantley, just in a smaller package.
The argument the guys on the radio had was Ramirez’s absurd ability to get hits with men in scoring position. It could be because of his hitting to all fields approach, his line drive swing and his high contact rate, but whatever it is, he’s fourth in the AL in RISP batting average. It’s a bit more nebulous than just being a replacement for the Indians’ former MVP, but it’s also just getting runs on board. Sure, he has the luxury of batting behind a bunch of pitch-taking mad men, but he executes, and that’s what’s important.
But is he really the team's most important, or valuable, player?
The reality is, he’s just not the best player on the team. There’s two guys above him who, whether using statistics or just by watching the games, are better. Francisco Lindor might be the best shortstop in baseball, and without him so much of the defense would just fall apart. He’s also batting third, replacing Brantley in the lineup even as Ramirez replaced him in the field for half the season. He leads the team in Wins Above Replacement from both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. And more than Ramirez, he’s just a reason to watch the Indians. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for as many grounders to shortstop just to watch them get turned in my life.
The other is Corey Kluber. As I wrote the other day, he’s on a Cy Young campaign, and if you don’t have a true MVP candidate I’d think a Cy Young winner would be a team’s MVP by default. As great as Ramirez is, Kluber has provided the real chance to win a game once every five days as long as the offense does almost literally anything at all.
Ramirez is also more just a part of a greater whole than the straw that stirs the drink, as it were. His emergence has helped the Indians weather Brantley being down, but right now he’s not exactly Reggie Jackson out there.
Of course, literally as I wrote that, Ramirez hit a game-tying home run against the Toronto Blue Jays. He does make things happen, but if a casual observer were to look at the average Indians game, I feel like Napoli or Lindor or even Jason Kipnis would draw the eye first. Not that that is a measure of MVP-ness, but you'd hope your most valuable guy drew the eyes of fans. His play is elevated by those around him as much as he elevates them. That's why they're great, not just because of one man, regardless of who it is.
It's important to decide how you define "MVP"
It is vague on purpose, I think, so as allow for discussion and confusion. Some might complain about the award makers’ foolishness in this aspect, but I like it. It’s plainly not just "Best Player", because that would be Mike Trout.
To be valuable, what does one have to do? Help the team win, right? Few on the Indians have done that as well as Ramirez. His absurd batting average with runners in scoring position has helped the Tribe put runs on the board all year, and that’s the whole point of the game. But Mike Napoli has all those home runs in close games, and home runs also place the fear of God in a pitcher. Especially when they go a quarter mile.
The other part is how versatile Ramirez has been, and how he’s accepted any role. It’s a true team player move. He’s given the Tribe a boost in left and at third, given Kipnis and Juan Uribe breathers at their positions, even filled in for Lindor a few times. It’s a different idea of value, but it’s still value.
I’m not here to answer the question. I have my own opinion, that he’s not Francisco Lindor, so take that how you will. But at the end of the day, he’s been great, and at least let the Tribe get over Brantley’s disintegrating shoulder and have an amazing season. The real hope is that this is just the beginning.