Generally speaking, it's not the best year for American League shortstops. Go back ten years, and you'll see that the AL was stacked at the position with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Miguel Tejada, among others. These days, Jeter is still around, but few players at the position still have the kind of cachet that the previous generation of players did.
But that doesn't mean that we should ignore how good White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez has become. This isn't to say that nobody has appreciated Ramirez as a quality shortstop; Chicago recently signed the shortstop to a four-year, $32 million contract through 2015 that makes him one of the highest-paid shortstops in baseball, and for the most part that appears to be a sound investment for the club.
So clearly the White Sox are buying whatever Ramirez is selling. But when you talk to people about Alexei Ramirez, you don't really get the sense that they're aware of just how good the Cuban has become. Sure, they might acknowledge that he's got some pop, can make some flashy plays, and generally doesn't strike out that much. But are they aware that Ramirez was the only shortstop in the American League to hit .280 with 15+ homers last season? Are they aware that Ramirez has the best UZR among shortstops since moving to the position in 2009?
Part of the problem with Ramirez is that, early in his career, he never was truly great at anything. He had power, but not a ton of power. He made lots of contact, but he wasn't really a .300 BA-type hitter. He was a flashy defender, but also the kind of guy that would have mental lapses and make unnecessary mistakes. And because he rarely walked, when the batting average and power weren't working, his bat was essentially worthless. But it was easy to forget how little pro experience Ramirez had when he joined the White Sox; Ramirez never went to the minor leagues after signing with Chicago, and he became the primary second baseman for the club just months after signing. So people just kind of jammed into their heads that Ramirez would generally be the player that they saw as a rookie in 2008: impatient at the plate and inconsistent in the field.
But like the White Sox had hoped when they shifted Ramirez to shortstop for the 2009 season, he began to improve. And when it came to defense, he began to improve rapidly. After playing primarily shortstop and the outfield while in Cuba, Ramirez seemed to have some trouble at second base making routine plays. But he constantly made plays that showed off his raw athleticism, reminding you that his defense could still get way, way better.
And the funny thing is that when he moved to shortstop, it did. Shaking off the inconsistency and focus issues that marred his defense early in his career, Ramirez really developed as a shortstop. At this point I'm not sure if there's a better defender at the position in baseball. He's got the range and the arm, and his instincts have only gotten better over the past couple years as he's gotten more accustomed to the position. Since moving to the position in 2009, Ramirez has been rated the best defensive shortstop in the majors by UZR and the fourth-best shortstop in the majors by plus-minus; watch him with your eyes, and you'll certainly agree with those very positive evaluations.
Part of the reason that people were skeptical of Ramirez's star potential was his lack of an impact skill; it didn't seem like he would ever be elite at anything, so it was hard to envision a scenario where he'd develop into a star-level talent. But as we've seen, people seriously underestimated the kind of defender that Ramirez could be*.
*When evaluators talk about inconsistent and error-prone young shortstops that still retain "Gold Glove upside," like say Tampa Bay's Hak-Ju Lee, you constantly hear people who wonder aloud how a shortstop that makes so many errors could eventually develop into an elite defender. But just look at Ramirez; within two years, he went from below-average defensive second baseman to elite defensive shortstop. Not saying that anyone with the tools can magically become a quality defender at shortstop; I'm just saying it can happen.
Because of that defense, combined with the shortstop's slightly improved offensive production, Ramirez has truly developed into a star-level player at the position. As we've seen from the likes of Brendan Ryan and Cesar Izturis, defense alone can turn you into a solid everyday shortstop, but offense is what carries Ramirez from adequate regular to well above-average regular. This season, Ramirez has combined his solid power and contact skills with an improved walk rate, pushing his current overall line to .282/.347/.448 with 6 home runs. Lots of guys have been able to match that kind of triple-slash line while playing shortstop; the difference here is that those guys rarely played the position with such an impressive combination of flash and skill.
All you have to do is check out the WAR leaderboards; only Jose Reyes has been a better all-around shortstop than Ramirez this season. And the guys that are usually brought up in the AL shortstop discussion, like Asdrubal Cabrera, Yunel Escobar, Erick Aybar and Elvis Andrus, just can't match Ramirez on both sides of the ball. Cabrera and Escobar can really hit, but neither one can defend like Alexei. Cabrera can make some unreal plays, but he's often inconsistent and the metrics have never liked his defensive work. Not to mention that we've never seen power like this from the Indians shortstop before.
And while Aybar and Andrus can often match Ramirez in the field, neither has consistently shown the kind of hitting ability that we've seen from Ramirez. All four are younger than Ramirez, and one of these guys could catch him in a couple years (particularly given the questionable validity of Ramirez's age), but right now the White Sox shortstop appears to be a clear step above all of them.
And yet, you don't really get the sense that people put Ramirez in the same class as players like Reyes, even though this is the second consecutive year that Ramirez is playing at this kind of level. It may feel odd to wrap your head around the idea that the American League doesn't have a better shortstop than Alexei Ramirez, but get used to it. The AL's shortstops have gotten worse, and Alexei Ramirez has gotten a lot better. Now it's time to give him credit.