Hanley Ramirez proved it again Thursday as the Dodgers clinched the National League West title in Arizona: when he's healthy, the National League has produced no equal.
Ramirez's performance in the clincher serves as an exclamation point: 4-for-5, his 19th and 20th home runs, 2 runs scored and 4 RBI in the 7-6 victory. Ramirez is hitting .350/.402/.653 through 323 plate appearances. His 1.056 OPS leads the National League by 94 points over Paul Goldschmidt -- whose .962 mark is itself 84 points better than Bryce Harper and 101 points over Matt Holiday, 14th and 15th in the league, respectively. Ramirez's bat is on another level, even as he fills the most difficult non-catcher position on the field.
Ramirez, however, has no shot at the National League MVP. He played just his 82nd game in Sunday's contest against San Diego, and he is expected to play just three or four of the Dodgers' final seven games. The MVP award is designed to award a full body of work. Although "strength of offense and defense," the MVP's first criterion, favors Ramirez, the award's second criterion is, verbatim, "Number of games played." Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Joey Votto have all played at least 150 games at an exceedingly high level, and those four -- at least -- must therefore come above Ramirez in the MVP voting, purely by the nature of the award.
In American sports, postseason awards (or midseason honors like All-Star appearances) hold great historical clout. These awards dominate cultural consciousness and hold massive historical influence, to the point where the number of MVP awards has for years colored a candidate's Hall of Fame viability. Getting shut out of the awards discussion, as Ramirez is likely to this season -- except the shortstop Silver Slugger, which not even a 39-game difference should swing in Troy Tulowitzki's favor -- means getting buried historically.
So here's the question: how do we remember Ramirez's season? Its historic nature is undeniable. No shortstop with even 300 plate appearances has matched Ramirez's 194 OPS+ in over a century -- Honus Wagner's 1908, when his .354/.415/.542 line in the dead ball era earned a 205 OPS+, is the only superior season. Until Ramirez, Arky Vaughn was the only shortstop to post a raw OPS over 1.000 with an OPS+ of 190 (1.098 in 1935).
Even though plenty of stars have been limited to half-seasons by injury throughout the years, Ramirez's season lacks obvious comparisons. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Ramirez is just one of three players to post five Wins Above Replacement in under 100 games in a non-strike season. The other two are Ramirez's teammate Yasiel Puig -- a major contender for Rookie of the Year -- and Ted Williams.
In 1955, Williams hit .356/.496/.703 with 28 home runs in just 98 games. He missed most of the first two months of the season over a divorce settlement, not playing until May 28, and he dealt with minor injuries that year as well. Williams, like Ramirez, led his league by miles in OPS -- 1.200 to Mickey Mantle's 1.042 -- and would have won the batting title if not for the at-bat requirement (Al Kaline won it at .340).
Williams still made the All-Star Game and he finished fourth in the MVP voting. Yogi Berra won the award despite just a .819 OPS; Mantle likely deserved it, and Kaline had a tremendous case as well. Williams, of course, was already an 11-time All-Star at this point in his career and had clout no player in today's game could even dream of -- the Red Sox offered Williams their managerial post prior to the 1955 season.
But Williams's effort came on a 4th-place Red Sox club. Ramirez was a catalyst -- arguably the most important catalyst -- on a team that went from 7.5 games back on June 19 to clinching the division with ease in mid-September. The club has gone 53-28 in his appearances and 36-38 without him. The difference between Ramirez and the likes of Justin Sellers (.510 OPS) and Luis Cruz (.344 OPS) is the difference between an easy National League West title and a dogfight with the Diamondbacks to the end.
Between the outstanding nature of his performance and its place in the Dodgers' dramatic season, Ramirez is an integral part of the story of the 2013 season as a whole. You can't tell the story of baseball in 2013 without Hanley Ramirez, and we shouldn't forget that just because his season falls outside the scope of the MVP award.