Lookit, I’m not going to try to tell you that Rafael Ramírez was a good ballplayer. He wasn’t.
But, much like that ’82 Braves team, while displaying some huge, obvious flaws, the Dominican shortstop could do a couple things well, things that could help you win… like, 89 games.
How’s that? Well, the ’82 club could mash—in fact, they led the league in runs (739) & homers (146). But, the pitching? Um, let’s call it a mixed bag. Beyond Phil Niekro (who went a fairly fortunate 17-4, while sporting a 3.61 ERA/104 ERA+) and 79 innings of Pascual Perez (3.04 ERA), the starters weren’t much. Looking at the quick & dirty, they finished last in the NL in quality-start percentage (43%).
What helped rescue the day over and over, however, was the Atlanta bullpen, specifically Gene Garber (8 wins & 30 saves with 2.34 ERA/161 ERA+ in 119.1 IP) and Steve Bedrosian (8 wins & 11 saves with 2.42 ERA/156 ERA+ in 137.2 IP), who had big years and racked up big innings.
And the defense, especially its keystone combo of Ramírez & Glenn Hubbard, did its bit. Though the modern numbers tell us that the Braves, overall, weren’t among the NL leaders in team defense, they did lead the league in DPs turned. Kinda important when you’re a club that’s always trying to wriggle out of jams…
In one player, Ramírez seemed to be the sum of all those contradictions. If you asked any Braves fan from the Murphy/Horner Era about Raffy, they’d tell you that he’d make an unbelievable play in the hole or turn a tough DP, but then he’d boot a routine ball right at him. Or maybe even 2 in the same game.
And indeed, the numbers back up that memory. He led the NL in errors (38), but he also led all NL shortstops in DPs (130). And the range factors put him well ahead of the league average. He finished the season at 3.5 WAR—the best campaign of his career.
Offensively, he was all over the place. At .278/.319/.379 (92 OPS+), he was anything but scary—still he offered a little more punch than a lot of the defense-only guys (Larry Bowa, Bill Russell) who were finishing up their NL careers at the time. Batting either 2nd or near the bottom of the order, he hit 10 HRs, had 52 RBI and scored 74 runs. Like a lot of his countrymen, he didn’t walk (36 BB), but he didn’t really strike out (49 K). He had speed (27 SBs), but got caught a lot, too (14 CS).
Physically, he looked kind of goofy. He had a big nose, an uncertain ’stache, a modified ’fro and was a bit crosseyed. Had a big butt and kind of pranced happily when he made a good play in the field. He never seemed to do it in a demonstrative, in-your-face fashion, but instead conveying genuine joy. And in that season, when many fans got to enjoy their first Atlanta pennant race, there was plenty of it to go around.
It was that combo of idiosyncrasies that prompted a college roommate & I to start the Rafael Ramírez Fan Club (roster of 2). Yeah, Niekro was the legend and Murphy was the MVP, but Raffy was our guy – butthair mustache and all.
Of course, the good times didn’t last much longer. He had a decent season in 1983’s 88-win campaign (2.2 WAR), but then began to decline. The Braves eventually shipped him off to Houston after the 1987 season and gave the position to Andres Thomas, possibly one of the least-effective Braves regulars in modern history (6 years, 61 OPS+, –5.8 WAR). But worse, unlike Rafael Ramirez, Thomas had no pizazz, didn’t prance and certainly came to represent that dark era of Braves baseball.