The Cleveland Indians Are Piping Hot Thanks to the Chronically Underrated Jose Ramirez

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Tuesday September 5th, 2017

Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez finished Sunday’s 11-1 win over the Tigers with five extra-base hits and two home runs, yet the only way he could get on the highlight reel was through the gaffes of others. His first home run, off of Tigers starter Chad Bell in the first inning, hit of the top of the wall twice before being inexplicably slapped over the fence by leftfielder Mikie Mahtook. Five innings later Ramirez clubbed a Zac Renninger offering to rightfield, which doinked off of the glove of Alex Presley. Ramirez hit home runs from both sides of the plate and became the first switch hitter in major league history to record five extra-base hits in one game, but the yuks overshadowed his exploits. Ramirez now sits at .310/.363/.558 with 23 home runs and a team-leading OPS+ of 134, yet the 24-year-old utility player remains generally underappreciated, if indispensable to one of baseball’s best teams.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the Indians themselves. Despite taking the Cubs to the brink in the World Series last season, they have lost screen time to the Dodgers’ historic season, the power show of Giancarlo Stanton and the wild AL wild card race. Yet, here they are: Owners of a 12-game winning streak that is the longest of any team this season, boasting the current AL Cy Young favorite in Corey Kluber and rolling to a second straight division title. Cleveland is now 10 games up in the AL Central and just three games behind Houston for homefield advantage throughout the American League playoffs.

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The Indians haven't been squeaking out these last 12 wins either. They compiled a 30-inning scoreless streak over the first five games of the streak, and the pitching staff has logged a 1.66 ERA over the span. Since that streak started on Aug. 24, they’ve outscored opponents 84–21 and a +99 run differential since the start of that month. Despite injuries to three of the franchise linchpins (second baseman Jason Kipnis, relief stalwart Andrew Miller and outfielder Michael Brantley will all be on the DL until at least mid-September), the Indians, somehow, remain completely unstoppable.

How are they doing it? With depth. Kluber (14–4, 2.56 ERA, 11.8 K/9) and Carlos Carrasco (13–6, 3.67 ERA, 10.0 K/9) remain the pitching staff’s anchors, but the contributions of Mike Clevinger (2–0, 15 K, 0 ER over his last two starts) and Ryan Merritt (2–0, 12 IP, 1 ER in two spot starts) have been key during the streak. Consistency problems have plagued Trevor Bauer throughout his career, but he’s logged a 2.38 ERA and a 4/1 K/BB ratio over his last eight starts to make amends for his dreadful start to the season. Strikeout machine Danny Salazar (12.5 K/9) returns from the disabled list to rejoin the rotation on Tuesday to round out not just a powerful, but complete starting rotation that can pace Terry Francona’s side through October. Remember, Cleveland was without Carrasco during last year’s postseason, but made it to Game 7 of the World Series anyway.

The bullpen, meanwhile, has survived Miller’s right knee injury to compile a 2.31 ERA and a 1.025 WHIP during the winning streak. None of their regular relievers has an ERA above 3.34 (Bryan Shaw), and new lefty specialist Tyler Olson hasn’t surrendered a run in 10 1/3 innings since being called up to Cleveland on July 21. The pitching staff leads the big leagues in K/9 (10.0), K/BB ratio (3.74), ERA+ (134) and FIP (3.44). The Indians have what fellow AL division leaders Houston and Boston do not: a bullpen that is both deep and reliable.

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Ramirez is the readiest example of an unheralded player who deserves greater recognition, but it’s hard to find an Indians contributor who is properly appreciated. First baseman/DH Carlos Santana is on pace for his fifth consecutive season of at least 150 games with an OPS+ above 100 and is fourth on the team with 22 homers and second with 75 walks. Franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor has upped his home run total from 15 last season to 26 this year with 25 games remaining. Wayward veteran outfielder Austin Jackson has resurrected his career this season, offering a .311/.372/.484 slash line and helping steady the team after Brantley’s ankle injury. Edwin Encarnacion's .252 batting average may have his lowest since 2010, but his on-base percentage of .378 is his highest since 2012, and he’s already taken a career-high 92 walks. Jay Bruce has hit four homers and added a solid .278/.354/.542 mark since arriving from the Mets on Aug. 10.

Ramirez, though, has been the team's offensive MVP—his 5.2 WAR is far ahead of Lindor's 3.3—and he should get some down-ballot votes for the league's honor at season's end. That may not be enough to push the Indians to the forefront of the conversation as the regular season winds down, but both Ramirez and his team have a brighter stage awaiting them in October. 

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