Two weeks back on Friday, I did a little piece about two former Marlins who might one day find themselves in the Hall of Fame, Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown. I hope they do get in eventually, and that Sheff gets enshrined with a Marlins cap on his head. That being said, there is one current Marlins player that is on a career path heading towards the Hall of Fame, and that player is of course Hanley Ramirez.
Now, it may be too hasty to call a soon-to-be 26-year old player a Hall of Famer, but with the way that Ramirez’s career has played out so far, it would not be all that far-fetched. Let’s take a look at it graphically, with some comparison points.
The 90’s were actually quite blessed in terms of shortstops. I grew up with baseball in the late ’90’s, and at that time there were three shortstops who stood head over heels above all others in terms of quality. Each was an amazing player. Here’s how Ramirez stands with each in terms of WAR for their first four seasons. All data from Rally’s WAR database when available. For Ramirez’s 2009, FanGraphs was used, with added baserunning data from BP.
Those three shortstops, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra, represented the best of the business in terms of shortstops in that era. In comparing them to Hanley, it would seem that Garciaparra and Jeter compare best in terms of age as well as performance. Rodriguez had some wonky jumps in his first four years before his career took off, but he was 19 when he began starting full-time for the Seattle Mariners. On the other hand, Jeter and Hanley both started at 22 and Garciaparra at 23, so their paths seem more comparable.
So let’s take A-Rod out of the comparison and add two more players who began full-time play at similar years. One is a Hall of Famer now, the other is up for candidacy this season and should be in the Hall.
That version is a little cluttered. Perhaps this version of the graph is easier to see.
These graphs show the different trajectories the careers of each of these shortstops have taken in their first ten seasons. Ramirez’s numbers are buried in those graphs in a light blue color, and again, they are quite comparable to these players. Three players, Ramirez included, began their career with a season between four and six WAR, with Garciaparra’s career off to the fastest start. If you check the first four seasons for all players involved, you can see that the early trajectory for Ramirez comes closest to both Jeter and Garciaparra, with Cal Ripken Jr. well ahead and Barry Larkin a bit behind.
Looking at those four players since that fourth year, each has taken a very different turn. Of the four, Jeter looks to be the strongest early comparison, and if Ramirez completed his career the way Jeter appears to be doing, I doubt any Marlins fan would be disappointed. Even through Jeter’s worse seasons on defense as a shortstop, he still racked up seasons of 3.5 – 4 WAR thanks mostly to his bat. There’s reason to believe that Ramirez could easily top that. For one, Ramirez is a superior hitter already in his career. While Jeter has posted one season during which he was an astonishing 56 runs better than average (1999), he has never since posted a year at or above 40 runs above average (FanGraphs actually has his 2006 at 42 RAA, while Rally has it at 38). Ramirez has already accomplished that feat three times, from 2007-2009. In addition, while Ramirez has posted one atrocious defensive season, Jeter has collected at least five seasons over 15 runs below average at shortstop, with two more over 10 runs below average. Ramirez, since that awful 2007 season, has come out to about average at short. If Jeter (and to a lesser extent Larkin, whose career was more level than Jeter’s and achieved similar results) and his trajectory represent the “play as well and as much as they should” career, then Hanley should easily surpass Jeter’s 69 current career WAR at shortstop.
Ripken represents a career modeled more for his defense than for his offense. Over the course of Ripken’s career, he was worth over 181 runs above average defensively at shortstop, an amazing feat given the position’s difficulty. Ramirez will never get to those numbers defensively, but he has huge edge on offense. It is conceivable that if he were to average 35 RAA with the bat/running over the course of six seasons (a tough task indeed, but conceivable) and be an average shortstop defensively, he could easily reach around 37 – 40 WAR over that span, pretty much matching the amount Ripken built up over his 5th through 10th seasons. Ripken reached 38 WAR over that career period.
Of course, the good outcomes are perhaps just as likely as the bad outcomes, which brings us to the case of Garciaparra. Garciaparra had an excellent career going for him before the 2001 season. In that year, he suffered a wrist injury that limited him to just 91 PA. The following year, he bounced back, posting two seasons of 6.7 WAR for the Boston Red Sox. Since then however, injuries have derailed his career. He was hurt for much of 2004 and was then dealt to the Chicago Cubs, who had him for an injury-filled and otherwise awful 2005 season. They let him go, and he never played significant time at shortstop again. His comeback 2006 season was marred by an equally ugly 2007 campaign, and he’s been a journeyman since. For Ramirez, Garciaparra represents the injury and fallout risk of bright, young star. It is amazing that through those injuries and poor seasons, Nomar was still able to capture 40+ WAR over the first ten years of his career. However, those ten seasons show the promise then collapse of a great player due to things he may not have been able to control.
So when we look at Ramirez, these potential paths all may loom. He could be as good as we might expect from him, with a slow decline from this early career high. He could break out, continue this monstrous path, and take his place among the best shortstops ever, if not the best. Or he could succumb to injury and the ravages of the career and never be the same player we saw from 2006-2009. Let’s temper our expectations and enjoy Ramirez’s career, especially as a Marlin, while we still can. These moments of greatness can indeed be few and far between. If Ramirez is indeed on a WAR path to the Hall of Fame, I’ll be happy to see his name enshrined. One day, I can point out Hanley’s bust in the Hall to my future children and say that I witnessed a remarkable career from start to finish and was proud that it ended in whatever way it did.