On Baseball: Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez Brings Smash and Dash Back to Baseball

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BOSTON — For a generation, it was a spectacular but relatively common achievement: 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season. From 1987 through 2012, major leaguers did this 49 times.

And then, suddenly, they stopped. Stolen bases in particular declined, and teams became especially worried about losing power hitters to injuries on the bases.

“You hold your breath a lot,” said Chris Antonetti, the president of the Cleveland Indians. “We’ve seen it with a lot of good players; Mike Trout lost a good chunk of a season sliding headfirst into a bag. You’re always mindful of it, but it’s that balance. You never want guys to lose that competitive edge and that drive and desire to help the team win.”

The Indians are winning a lot these days, running away with their third consecutive American League Central title. This week they became the first team since April to beat the Boston Red Sox twice in a row at Fenway Park. They led the majors in stolen bases and ranked third in homers before Wednesday, and their leader in both categories, third baseman Jose Ramirez, is poised to pry open the rusty gates to the 30/30 club.

Ramirez had 37 home runs and 28 steals through Tuesday, to go with a .296 average. He is also the only player in the majors with more than 80 walks and fewer than 60 strikeouts, an anomaly in an era of extreme power pitching. As the Indians chase their first championship in 70 years, Ramirez could win the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award — or, at least, become the first 30/30 player since Ryan Braun and Trout in 2012.

“That would really be something I would be extremely proud of,” Ramirez said through an interpreter, speaking of either possibility. “Obviously the team comes first, but everybody has individual goals that you want to achieve, and that would be a tremendous thing for me because I would be a part of history at that point.”

Others may also hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases this season. Ramirez’s teammate, shortstop Francisco Lindor, had 29 homers and 19 steals through Tuesday, and three others had at least 20 of each: Boston’s Mookie Betts (27 homers, 24 steals), the Chicago Cubs’ Javier Baez (25 homers, 20 steals) and the Angels’ Trout (30 homers, 21 steals).

While growing up in the Dominican Republic, Ramirez, 25, identified with the Mets’ Jose Reyes, another switch-hitting, undersized infielder with speed, power and verve. Reyes has hit as many as 19 homers in a season and stolen as many as 78 bases — a figure he reached in 2007, and one unmatched in the majors since.

“I don’t think stolen bases are valued like they were in the past,” said the Cleveland first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., a six-time All-Star catcher. “Organizations think about saving players wear and tear, and they’d rather see home runs and slugging than guys stealing bases. I feel like if you have a few guys who can run, you can put pressure on the opposition and disrupt the pitcher’s comfort.”

The Indians’ speed, power and ability to hit for contact (they ranked last in the majors in strikeouts through Tuesday) could make them hard to beat in October. The Red Sox, who do the same things well, recognize some of themselves in the Indians.

“It’s tougher to prepare for them than other teams, because you know they can run,” Boston Manager Alex Cora said. “That’s an element of the game that not everybody buys into nowadays, and it’s a game-changer. They hit the ball out of the ballpark, but at the same time, if they’re not, they can put pressure on you and steal a few bases. and all of a sudden there’s a bloop single and they score.”

Ramirez signed with Cleveland for $50,000 in 2009, when he was 17, and never appeared on a Top 100 prospect list for Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus or MLB.com. He had speed in the minors and hit .304, but said he was always skinny and needed a bulkier frame to develop his power. He is 5 foot 9 and listed at 165 pounds, but his physique is decidedly round; Ramirez enjoyed an ice cream cone in the clubhouse on Wednesday and endorses a personal line of salsa in Ohio.

“He’s not the biggest, most physical guy; he doesn’t really look the part,” Antonetti said. “People question his power and rightfully so — he doesn’t have a big track record of doing that in the minor leagues — but I think maybe they just underestimated how important it is to him to be a great player.”

Manager Terry Francona praised Ramirez for his attention to details: taking extra bases, backing plays up, and understanding how teams want to pitch him. In six seasons with the Indians, Francona has used Ramirez more than 100 times at shortstop, second base and third, plus 50 times in left field.

“He kind of looked like he owned the field when he first came up,” Francona said. “His motor never stops.”

Corey Kluber, the Indians’ two-time Cy Young Award winner, said he was most impressed by Ramirez’s daily intensity, and his discipline to rarely swing at pitches outside the strike zone. According to Fangraphs, only six qualified hitters make contact more often than Ramirez, who does so with more than 88 percent of his swings.

“He’s got a lot of conviction in his swing, but he’s also hunting a certain zone — and anytime a pitcher goes in that zone, he hasn’t missed this year,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “It’s not just that he’s getting the hits, it’s the damage he does with them. He just does not miss.”

Ramirez, who maintains a similar swing from both sides, said he knows what pitches he handles best and concentrates on those. Also, he said, he focuses on contact for a very simple reason: He hates striking out.

“He doesn’t strike out, he hits the ball hard consistently, he’s at the top of batting average and home runs and steals, and he plays incredible defense,” reliever Andrew Miller said. “There’s not much more you can ask of him. He’s the ultimate player.”

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