Baseball’s third-best player of the past five years measures 5-foot-9. The things that stand out about him physically stand out in the literal sense. His lip, almost always protruding on one side of an infectious, lopsided grin. And his butt, a prominent rear end that provides a distinct, power-generating center of gravity in the box without slowing him down when he bolts toward first.
Identifying traits on his Baseball-Reference page also stand out. A switch-hitter. Two different seasons with more extra-base hits than strikeouts (in this economy!?), three 20/20 seasons. And others turn up shorter than you’d ever expect: Two third-place MVP finishes, another second-place finish. A contract that read like a misprint — six years and $36 million? For this guy?
Everything about José Ramírez screamed unusual excellence. Everything suggested something was going to round off. Something was going to change, had to change.
On Wednesday, one thing did change: The Cleveland Guardians finally committed to a superstar by agreeing to a five-year, $124 million extension that will kick in once Ramírez’s current deal exhausts its team options after 2023. It’s still a pittance compared to what Ramírez might have earned on the open market, but he has chosen to stick with Cleveland.
It’s also the latest signal that something bigger has changed. In Ramírez, the unheralded infielder turned all-around star whose transformation heralded the sport’s launch angle revolution, baseball has found its Most Wanted Player. Earlier this week, it was easy to pinpoint Ramírez as the biggest fish on the July trade market, but even with his future now secured in Cleveland, it’s apparent that his success is not an oddity. It’s the prototype for superstar baseball players in the 2020s.
How surprising is Jose Ramirez’s Guardians extension?
In a vacuum, Ramírez is exactly the type of player who signs an extension. By FanGraphs’ wins above replacement metric, he’s been the third-most valuable position player of the past five seasons. Of the top 12 on that list, only Anthony Rendon has reached free agency on time, with Aaron Judge a candidate to join him next winter. Ramirez, of course, already signed one extension — a comically team friendly one that had a maximum value of $50.4 million over seven years that took effect just before he ascended in 2017.
The latest extension is more in line with his cohort of excellence, mirroring and slightly exceeding the average annual value of the second extension Jose Altuve signed with the Houston Astros prior to 2018.
If there’s a surprise in the news, it’s that the Guardians opened the coffers enough to keep a star. Their previous record contract, signed by Edwin Encarnacion, had a total value of $60 million. By accepting this deal now instead of soldiering on through his option year in 2023 to reach free agency, Ramirez certainly made the choice easier. When Francisco Lindor didn’t acquiesce to team demands, he was shipped off to the New York Mets prior to his walk year and signed a 10-year, $341 million deal, with the added benefit of being two years younger than Ramírez when he signed.
Even with his salary remaining under $13 million, Ramírez will make more than double the Guardians’ next highest-paid player (ace Shane Bieber, $6 million in his first year of arbitration). By Cot’s Contracts’ projections, the Guardians will haven a paltry opening day payroll of $51.6 million after running MLB’s second-lowest payroll in 2021.
It would be nice if the extension signaled an intent to surround Ramírez with enough talent to return to the glory of their 2016 pennant run. That’s just not necessarily clear. This was more likely a cost-benefit analysis that pointed strongly toward the player they already have over whatever trade offers they have received or anticipated receiving.
When the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts — one of the few similar test cases we could refer to — they didn’t get anything close to equal talent or expected production back. They padded their side of the trade ledger, if you will, by sending away David Price’s contract. It was a cheap and cynical move by an ownership group trying to dip under the competitive balance tax threshold, but it was at least a “justification” by the logic they employed. The Guardians, as you’d guess with that bargain basement payroll, have no such contracts to unload. And while the Lindor trade has many years left to fully play out, the main pieces of that deal aren’t looking like foundational players at the moment.
Even if everyone wanted Ramírez — which seems to have been the case — it would have taken a lot of surefire stardom to overwhelm the value the Guardians already get from Ramírez. And opposing teams weren’t likely to pony up without assurances that he would sign an extension.
Everyone is looking for players like Jose Ramirez
With actual José Ramírez spoken for, teams will continue scouring the baseball world for Future José Ramírez. The sweeping impact of Ramírez’s style of play is most apparent, though, in a player who has quickly made the future now. And the Tampa Bay Rays found him in Ramírez’s hometown.
After meeting a 15-year-old Ramírez when he was just 7 in Baní, Dominican Republic, Rays shortstop Wander Franco is now among the brightest young stars in the sport. He arrived in the majors last season at age 20, a consensus No. 1 prospect accompanied by soaring rhetoric about MVP potential and all-around brilliance. The closest comparison for his game was a switch-hitting infielder with serious contact skills, all-around baseball aptitude and a prominent, powerful posterior.
The comparisons to Ramírez, who never made a top 100 prospects list himself, is not a coincidence. Franco told Baseball America in 2018 that he emulated Ramírez above all others.
“That’s my friend from back home and I watch him a lot, to try and obviously understand what hitters are trying to do,” Franco said. “When I was little we were neighbors, so I got to meet him and watch him come up and do all his good things. That’s my idol.”
Franco, who also cashed in with an extension this offseason, earned belief quickly in part because of Ramírez’s success. Now their skills are growing into a more defined pipeline. A Georgia high schooler named Termarr Johnson is ranked by many as the No. 1 prospect in this summer’s MLB draft, and you’ll never guess the comparisons evaluators tag him with: Ramírez and Franco.
Don’t take Ramírez’s exclusion from the prospect lists of his day as a miss on the industry, though. The way he accomplishes his production was hard to foresee even in his early big-league years. He and Altuve largely sketched a blueprint that scouts are more readily identifying.
It’s easier to describe than to achieve, but Ramírez’s formula goes roughly like this: First, he makes elite levels of contact (87.5% of swings) thanks to sharp plate discipline and excellent barrel control. The added wrinkle of 2016 into 2017 was a move to swing to put the ball in the air. Since 2017, he has the seventh-lowest ground-ball rate of any hitter who strikes out less than 20% of the time. Because he is 5-foot-9 and doesn’t possess the easy raw power of an Aaron Judge, Ramírez aims to pull the ball as much as possible to put those fly balls in the seats. Among those same lower-strikeout hitters, his 50.5% pull rate is the majors’ second-highest. Put it together with excellent defense and baserunning and you have a star punching way above his apparent physical abilities.
That’s the insight that made Franco even easier to spot as a star. It’s the idea that illuminates paths to greatness for prospects like Johnson who may have similar enough baseline innate traits — strong bat control and a sharp eye — that could enable the rest of the package to be taught.
The reward, when it all comes together, is a player nimble enough to man a challenging infield position and still blast 30+ homers a year.
That’s something every team could use. At least for now, only Cleveland gets to employ the original.