Jose Ramirez’s Rankings Are Still TBD, but His Awesomeness Isn’t

My friend (and former Baseball Essential colleague) Jeremy Frank asked an interesting question over on his Twitter account, @MLBRandomStats:

This is, of course, related to Cleveland Indians slugger speedster phenom Jose Ramirez, who currently sits in second place in the American League in stolen bases (28, one behind Dee Gordon‘s 29) and home runs (37, two behind Khris Davis‘s 39). Both numbers are already easily career highs for Ramirez, who stands a decent chance at winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award this fall.

As Jason Lukehart pointed out a few hours before Jeremy’s tweet, no one has led the league in both categories in 86 years.

Of the three times this feat has been accomplished, twice were in the Dead Ball Era (with single-digit league-leading home run totals) and the other led the league with just 20 stolen bases. The fact that it hasn’t been accomplished since before Vin Scully started kindergarten underscores just how difficult it is to lead the league in two stats that are, if not contradictory, at least not complementary.

Of course, Jeremy’s poll did not include my personal answer, which is that I’m not all that impressed by any “leading the league” stats, because they are too dependent on the performance of others. Barry Bonds, the best home run hitter of all time, only led the league in home runs twice, the same number as Tony Armas and one-third as often as Gavvy Cravath. Barry’s dad Bobby Bonds, once the poster child for “speed and power,” never led the league in homers or stolen bases. Sammy Sosa is the only players to have 60+ homers in a season three times, and he didn’t lead the league in homers in any of those three years.

I’m extremely interested in how the raw numbers fit in with the overall offensive environment of the time, but I wouldn’t be any less impressed by Miguel Cabrera‘s 2012 Triple Crown season if Adrian Beltre had batted .331 to edge him in that category. In fact, Cabrera’s .330 batting average was the third-lowest mark to lead the league in my lifetime, and when I was born, Elvis was still alive. It doesn’t make his season any less impressive, but it does mean that the Triple Crown was at least as much due to circumstance as to his accomplishments.

That brings us to Ramirez. He is currently on pace for 35 stolen bases and 46 home runs. Chances are, he won’t end up leading the league in either category, as Davis is on pace for 48 homers and Gordon has stolen more bases in fewer game and seems likely to extend his lead. Does that make a 35-SB/46-HR season any less remarkable? No! But when you look at it that way, there are certainly seasons that demonstrated a more impressive mix of power and speed. A few that come to mind:

Eric Davis, 1986-87

I have a hard time deciding which of these to choose, but in a way, it’s impressive just to realize that Davis stole 80 bases in one season and hit 37 homers the next. In 1987, he stole 50 bases along with those 37 homers — in just 129 games! That’s after hitting 27 homers and stealing 80 bases the year before, in just 132 games. Anyone who watched Davis play can tell you that he could have been one of the best if he had just stayed healthy, and these two seasons show why.

Rickey Henderson, 1986

The same year that Davis had 27 and 80, Henderson had 28 and 87! Henderson was never a pure power hitter — the 28 homers was tied for his career high — but he hit 297 career homers and stole 1,406 bases, so he belongs on this list.

Barry Bonds, 1990

I know, Bonds is one of only three members of the 40/40 club, so you’d think that if I was going to list a Bonds season here, it would be that one (1996, 42 HR, 40 SB). But for me, his 33-homer, 52-steal 1990 season is more impressive. According to the best evidence we have available, it was the McGwire/Sosa chase of 1998 that “inspired” Bonds to start enhancing his performance, so both seasons came before he was chemically aided. But even if Bonds himself wasn’t enhancing yet in 1996, the offensive environment had changed. In 1990, Cecil Fielder became the first hitter in a long time to hit 50 homers (with 51), but the second-highest total was 40 by Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg’s NL-leading 1990 number wouldn’t have cracked 1996’s Top 10. On the other hand, stolen bases were only slightly down in 1996 compared to 1990. So for me, Bonds’ 1990 season — when he won the first of seven MVP Awards — was more impressive.

Joe Morgan, 1976

In a year in which only four players in the majors hit 30+ homers, the 5-for-7 Morgan hit 27 as a Gold Glove-winning second baseman. He also finished third in the big leagues with 60 stolen bases. Morgan had 114 walks and only 41 strikeouts, and he was caught stealing just nine times. Essentially, three decades before he earned a new reputation as an anti-sabermetric curmudgeon on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, Morgan was a sabermetric darling ahead of his time. How  guy who got into the Hall of Fame on the strength of a .392 career on-base percentage despite a rather pedestrian .271 career batting average could end up the way he did, I’ll never understand. But for our purposes today, it’s probably his 268 homers and 689 stolen bases that interest us the most.

There are others. I didn’t mention Mike Trout, or Darryl Strawberry, or Jose Canseco, or Alex Rodriguez, or a dozen other guys. What Ramirez is doing this year is very impressive. It won’t be any less impressive even if Davis or Gordon prevent him from leading the league in both categories. But more to the point, it won’t be any more impressive if he does lead the league in both. He’s not the first player to show a remarkable blend of speed and power, and he’s not even the most remarkable.

But something doesn’t have to be the BEST EVER!!! to be worth noting. Ramirez is noteworthy not just because of what he’s doing, but also because he has seemingly come out of nowhere to do it. After bouncing between the minors and the majors for a few years, Ramirez played his first full season in 2016 at age 23. The next year, he finished third in the MVP voting, and this year, he has been significantly better.

Ramirez might lead the league in homers and steals and win the MVP. He might finish third in all three. Either way, he has had a remarkably fun season.

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