CLEVELAND — Jose Ramirez is a perennial MVP candidate. He’s the first hitter the Guardians want up in the game’s biggest moments. But it isn’t where he’s at his most exciting.
That distinction is reserved for the basepaths.
And those moments are normally when his helmet is left in the dust and ends up somewhere far behind him as he turns a single into a double, goes first-to-third or avoids the tag at home plate on a play when most runners wouldn’t t have dared to even go for it.
There isn’t a more thrilling player in baseball while running the bases. And there’s an argument to be made that there also isn’t anyone better.
“He sees the whole field in quick time,” said third base coach Mike Sarbaugh. “It’s something you can’t teach, and he’s one of the best, for sure.”
The heart of what makes Ramirez such a dynamic baserunner is much more than pure speed. He ranks in the 67th percentile in sprint speed, according to Statcast. He’s quick, for sure. But he isn’t 100-meter-dash level fast.
Making history: Projecting when Jose Ramirez will pass 9 hitters ahead of him on Guardians’ home run list
There are dozens of faster players across the league. In fact, going by sprint speed, five of them are in the Guardians lineup alone, and Ramirez isn’t even the fastest player on the left side of his own infield (Amed Rosario, Myles Straw, Andres Gimenez, Will Brennan and Steven Kwan all grade higher this season).
The elements that separate Ramirez from other baserunners, and what make him a special case, are deeper than simply foot speed. It’s his instincts, and his ability to read plays at an elite — perhaps unparalleled — level while running with such aggressiveness.
Jose Ramirez has the best ‘mental clock’ of any baserunner Terry Francona has ever managed
As manager Terry Francona has often said, it’s his “mental clock” that separates him from the other great baserunners in today’s game.
“Jose is, I think, the best I’ve ever seen,” Francona said recently. “It’s like another sense, and I don’t know if you can teach people that sense, but when you know where the ball is, you’re going to be a much more intelligent baserunner.”
To put it simply: Ramirez sees the play unfold in a way that others don’t, like somebody counting cards at the blackjack table. They can see things other people at the table can’t, and it helps to make the right play in every situation. The baseball version of that is Ramirez on the basepaths.
“Some of the stuff you’d like to be able to teach, and you try to teach, but his instincts — he sees things as he’s running down the line,” Francona said. “So often you’ll see a guy going to first and he’s looking at the ball and he almost misses first because he doesn’t know where he’s at. Jose has a way of seeing what’s happening, staying on his route, but he also sees what could happen.”
“He has that instinct, like, ‘This guy could bobble this. If he does, I’m going to be here.’ It’s innate. He’s good, and he’s under control. It’s hard to teach.”
Staying in Cleveland: Jose Ramirez wanted to remain in Cleveland, ‘made it possible’ for an extension with Guardians
Jose Ramirez leads baseball in FanGraphs baserunning metric between 2018 and 2023
FanGraphs’ Base Running (BsR) is an all encompassing metric that takes into account stolen bases, being caught while stealing, taking extra bases, being thrown out, etc. And who leads the majors among qualified players since 2018?
Ramirez, with a 34.8. There’s only player within shouting distance of him: Trea Turner, at 34.6. Nobody else has reached 28.
Those metrics serve as another example of how Ramirez is baseball’s smartest baserunner. While Ramirez is only in the 67th percentile in sprint speed across the majors, Turner is in the 99th, and is one of the game’s fastest runners. Ramirez makes up for it by his aggressiveness combined with the reality that he’s almost never wrong when making a gamble.
“When he’s on third, if the infield’s in, I feel good about it because I feel like he’s going to make the right decision 99 out of 100 times, and it’s hard to teach those instincts,” Sarbaugh said.
It’s the little things that make the difference It’s the tiny micro-elements that even in a stadium of 30,000+ people, few might notice. Like how he rarely speaks to the first baseman. Like how he gives the outfield alignment an extra glance.
5th All-Star selection: Cleveland Guardians’ Jose Ramirez, Emmanuel Clase selected to 2023 MLB All-Star Game
“If you watch a game, anytime he gets on base, he’ll put his sliding pad on right away, and he’s always scanning the outfield,” said JT Maguire, a major league staff assistant who previously worked as the organization’s baserunning coordinator. “He’s ready to go from that first pitch, where some guys may not run through that mental checklist like he does.”
As soon as contact is made, Ramirez already has the calculations, along with the mental picture and ticking clock of what’s unfolding around him.
Earlier this season, Ramirez slid around a tag at home that Francona described as something very few runners can do while in a full sprint. Even before that, Ramirez somehow tagged up and scored from home on a ball that was hit not too far beyond third base. And last week, he gave the Guardians the lead in extra innings by stealing home.
“[On some plays] if he hesitates at all, he’s going to be out,” Sarbaugh said. “I think as a fan or even as a coach, you see [those types of plays] and you marvel at how quick of a decision he makes, and he makes the right direction. It’s impressive.”
He runs with a controlled recklessness. He’s a gambler who knows how to tip the odds in his favor and beat the house.
But one of the things that has impressed teammates the most is that he’s relentless in his pursuit of that next base.
“He’s always hunting,” Kwan said. “I remember one time we were in Chicago and the left fielder played it really bad, literally a casual single, and he just never stopped running and turned it into a double. That’s the kind of thing you don’t see on a scoresheet. It shows a double, but that was a single to 99 percent of the rest of baseball.”
Ramirez might lose control of his helmet. But on the basepaths, he’s the most under control runner in the game. And if that helmet has come off, it probably means the battle to stop him from taking the extra base is one that he’s already won.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Jose Ramirez is MLB’s most exiting baserunner