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The Utility Star

Cleveland’s José Ramírez doesn’t have a best position, but he’s still been one of the best players in baseball this season

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s hard not to love José Ramírez. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Ramírez has a toned-down version of José Altuve’s it’s-funny-when-a-little-guy-does-big-things act going on, and it’s fun to laugh when he loses his helmet on the base paths.

But Ramírez, like Altuve, also has the goods. He posted a 3.9-WAR season last year at age 23, and after a lukewarm start to the 2017 season, he’s sixth in MLB in wRC+ over the past 30 days and is hitting .371/.411/.667 in June. If he were any more hot in Cleveland, he’d have to change his name to Valerie Bertinelli.

It’s not just that Ramírez is good; it’s that he does a little bit of everything. He switch-hits. He has speed (his next stolen base will give him four straight double-digit-steal seasons, including 22 last year), power (46 doubles in 2016), and contact skills (third-lowest strikeout rate and fourth-highest contact rate in baseball since 2016, minimum 900 PA).

Not only that, but the 24-year-old has already demonstrated an ability to play all over the diamond. Ramírez was a shortstop when he first came up full-time in 2014, but Francisco Lindor arrived a year later and obviated Cleveland’s need for a shortstop for the foreseeable future. So in 2016, when All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley went down for the year with a shoulder injury, Ramírez made 47 starts there. But he spent most of the season at third base, a position where Cleveland hadn’t had an average starter in a decade. This year, Ramírez spelled second baseman Jason Kipnis, who missed the start of the year with his own shoulder injury, then returned to third, where he’s on pace to put up the best season by a Cleveland third baseman since Jim Thome was skinny enough to play at the hot corner.

So Ramírez is the best Cleveland third baseman in more than 20 years, but he’s only playing there because Cleveland has filled the other positions he’s capable of playing. If third-base prospect Nolan Jones turns out to be really good in two or three years when he comes up, Ramírez will probably move again.

Ramírez is, effectively, a super-utility guy.

As shifting blurs the lines between infield positions and shorter benches mean most teams aren’t carrying specialized reserves anymore, the utility player has never been more important. Now your utility infielder also has to be your speedy pinch runner, and maybe your backup center fielder, and it’d help if he can come off the bench to hit tough lefties.

Having a couple of players with positional flexibility also makes team-building less tricky; puzzles that fit together in multiple ways are much easier to solve. For that reason, a player like Ramírez who can slide into five different defensive positions has value that doesn’t necessarily show up in the stats.

The best team in baseball last year (the Cubs) and the best team in baseball this year (the Astros) were both full of guys who can play multiple positions.

In Houston, third baseman Alex Bregman was drafted as a shortstop and moved over because Carlos Correa blocked him, but he’s also played second base and left field in the past 12 months. Marwin González, once a weak-hitting shortstop as a rookie, is hitting .315/.401/.582 this year while starting at five different positions, none of them more than 16 times in his 61 games.

The Cubs have moved Javy Báez, Ian Happ, and Kris Bryant all over the diamond, and they even went so far as to acquire Ben Zobrist before the 2016 season. Over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the only Cubs who were nailed to a single position were first baseman Anthony Rizzo and center fielder Dexter Fowler. Even the team’s catchers moved around a little, as Willson Contreras played some left field and Kyle Schwarber caught as a rookie. Everyone else split time between two or more positions, depending on who was healthy and what the game situation was.

Zobrist, who’s now nearing the end of his career, inaugurated the modern super-utility role in 2009, when he hit .297/.405/.543 while playing seven different positions, plus DH, and finished eighth in AL MVP voting. More than any other 21st-century player, Zobrist raised a question that now applies to Ramírez: Can a utility guy be a star?

The easy answer is to point to last year’s NL MVP, Kris Bryant, who played six positions in 2016. But Bryant is most often perceived as a third baseman, where he’s played about 80 percent of his career defensive innings. That’s important because while versatility is viewed as a good thing in the abstract, when a player moves around the diamond a lot, it gives the impression he’s not good enough to stake his claim to a single position, whether that’s actually the case or not. Even in the era of positional flexibility, the term “utilityman” still carries the whiff of the backup.

There’s something to that. Players who get moved around, like Ramírez, frequently get displaced by superior defenders. Lindor could probably hack it anywhere on the diamond if he wanted to, but he’s such a good shortstop that Cleveland would never think of moving him off the position. But sometimes a player’s versatility is such that he’s not ideally suited to playing one position (he’ll lack ideal hands or actions for third base, range for shortstop, or arm for right field) but capable of playing many positions competently.

In the 1950s, the Yankees moved infielder Gil McDougald all over the place, depending on whether they needed a shortstop, second baseman, or third baseman. McDougald posted double-digit home runs and recorded at least 473 plate appearances in each of the first eight years of his career, and over that time he posted a 115 OPS+. McDougald, who was at least a win above average in each of his 10 major league seasons, would’ve had a decent Hall of Fame case if he’d played for another half-dozen seasons and hadn’t retired at 32.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Tony Phillips played everywhere but pitcher and catcher for six teams over an 18-year career, and unlike Jackie Robinson — who bounced all over the field over his career but tended to play one position in a given season — Phillips was a utilityman throughout his career; though he played at least 110 games in a season 13 times, he played 110 games in a season at one position just once.

Although Phillips and McDougald, like Zobrist, both put up 40-win careers, neither was necessarily a star, for one reason or another. Phillips, who posted seven four-win seasons, played his best years with bad teams, never made an All-Star team, and earned MVP votes just once. McDougald won eight pennants and five World Series in 10 years with the Yankees, but there’s only so much star power to go around on a team with Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. He and Zobrist were both multiple-time All-Stars, but became so famous for their flexibility that they never got enough credit for just being really good ballplayers. Zobrist, for instance, has taken three different teams to the World Series over a nine-year span and posted two eight-win seasons, and yet he’s never topped that eighth-place finish in MVP voting.

But the baseball landscape has changed even since 2009. Fans are savvy enough now to understand that players like Zobrist, McDougald, and Ramírez can be offensive cornerstones even without gaudy home run totals, and to understand the value of versatility. Phillips in particular was a low-average, high-OBP guy without big power who retired just a few years before that kind of hitter came into fashion. He’d be a cult hero if he played today, rather than a journeyman.

Since athletes are getting bigger, stronger, and faster now, and because batted-ball data allows fielders to position themselves better, we can look at someone like the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Bryant and say, “He could probably play center field in a pinch.” In 1951, when McDougald first came up, we’d look at someone that size and say, “He could play power forward in the NBA.”

We’re better at identifying and training potential super-utility guys, better at deploying them in ways that maximize their versatility, and better at appreciating that versatility, rather than viewing it as a weakness. Everything’s getting better, including José Ramírez.

All stats updated through Thursday afternoon.