How Jose Ramirez went from too small to star to an artist at the plate

Heading into the All-Star break, there are four hitters in baseball with an OPS over 1.000. All four are in the American League, and all four will be starting in the All-Star Game. Mike Trout, you've heard of him. And you know Mookie Betts, the starting right fielder of the Boston Red Sox. And designated hitter J.D. Martinez was the big bat in last winter's free-agent class, and now he's earning every penny at the plate for Boston.

But the fourth player? It's José Ramírez, the 5-foot-9 third baseman for the Cleveland Indians whose numbers have turned heads and quickly earned the respect of teammates and votes from fans.

But the thing about Ramírez taking his place among the best hitters in the game is that it wasn't expected, it wasn't predicted, it wasn't foreseen. That's because when he started to pursue his dream of being a professional baseball player at age 15 in his native Dominican Republic, Ramírez found most doors leading to the majors being slammed in his face.

Back in 2008, despite being one of the top-performing players in the Dominican Prospect League, Ramírez would hear phrases such as, "He's just a filler player," "He's way too small" and, the one that bothered him most of all, "He'll never be a star."

Ramírez grew up in Baní, a city approximately 40 miles southwest of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, well known for its plantains and artisanal coffee, and for being former All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada's hometown. Ramírez grew up dreaming of being like an all-world hitter named Ramírez -- Manny. But he had to settle for the nickname of "Mini-Me" due to his small size.

"I knew it would be hard for me [to get signed] because [scouts] are always looking for a Mike Trout, a Bryce Harper. Those kind of guys; big, strong guys. I imagine that [José] Altuve had the same thing happen to him. I guess nobody believed Altuve could be what he has become. Sometimes your size, a smaller body, one does not attract attention or anything and nobody believes in you," he said.

"I always excelled in the DPL, but no one would ever really believe in me," Ramírez explained in a one-on-one interview with ESPN. "Only my coach, Enrique Soto, he always supported me. He always told me, 'You're the best player here; the thing is no one knows about it.'

"There were players getting millions in signing bonuses; big boys that were worth a lot of money," Ramírez added. "Enrique Soto told Ramón Peña [who led Cleveland's Latin American scouting from 2009 to 2016], 'You'd give $2 million to those guys and you won't give $200,000 to José Ramírez? He's the best player here, and he's going to make it to the majors really fast.' And they negotiated and negotiated, and Ramón Peña said he wouldn't pay more than $50,000. The day he signed me, [Peña] said, 'Enrique has no idea what a bad deal he just made!'"

Even after signing, Ramírez did not have it easy, even though he just kept hitting despite being among the youngest players at every level on the way up. His stature was always seen as a strike against him. But after splitting the 2013 season playing second, third and shortstop at Double-A at 20 years old, he earned an initial cup of coffee when rosters expanded.

"I won't mention any names, but there are people even in this organization who said they were not going to bring me up to the big leagues, that I was not ready," Ramírez said. "I never said anything to them, I tried to remain humble, but I always knew I would prove them wrong."

He earned a return to the majors for the second half in 2014 -- aged just 21 years old -- but struggled to stick in 2015. But since he made it back to the majors to stay in August 2015, he has done nothing but hit, delivering a .775 OPS for the rest of 2015, an .825 OPS with 60 extra-base hits in 2016, topped by last year's breakthrough to a .957 OPS and a third-place finish in AL MVP voting. Indians manager Terry Francona would be the first one to point out that you underestimate "Josie" at your own peril.

"Josie has made himself what he is," Francona explained. "When he first came up, we had to send him back twice because he was struggling. We knew he'd be a good utility player because he could move around; he could run a bit. And then, once he got going ... it's amazing when people understand, 'Man, I can belong here.' Then all of a sudden you just don't belong -- 'I can thrive here.'

"He is a player that you can win with," Francona said. Then he added, "He is a player that you can anchor your team around him and win."

And just like that, the former prospect too small to take seriously is too big for the Indians to win without. Paired with all-world shortstop Francisco Lindor, his gifts help the Indians trade punches at the plate with the big-budget, star-laden lineups in New York or Boston, which gives them two franchise players to keep contending with for years to come. But where Lindor could become a free agent after 2021, Ramírez is already locked in as an Indian through 2023 after signing a five-year contract with two team options.

He's well worth the investment. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo considers Ramírez to be gifted with some of the best hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition in baseball. "He's really a natural good hitter," Van Burkleo noted. "He's got very good quick-twitch reactionary-type athleticism ... the way his mind works and his calmness, the fearlessness. It's just a perfect combination."

That combination has helped Ramírez deliver in almost any situation the Indians might need, creating an in-game problem opponents can't work their way around. And in today's reliever-dominated game with opponents always looking to gain matchup advantages, Ramírez's balance can be even more important. In addition to being dangerous from both sides of the plate, he ranks in the top 10 in OPS against both opposing starters and relievers this season, with nearly identical OPS marks and strikeout rates against both.

"He's such a good hitter that the guys coming out of the pen -- yeah, they've got great stuff, but they're not going to overmatch a hitter with his skills, because he can really hit anything," Van Burkleo said. "I think the fact that he doesn't expand in the zone often is one of his strengths. He's also a very smart hitter."

Fourteen-year veteran Edwin Encarnación, one of the most respected power hitters of his generation, is one of the biggest beneficiaries from his teammate's exemplary pitch-recognition skills. Encarnación explained that the level of Ramírez's pitch-recognition abilities are like those of players with much more experience in the majors.

"I think that's why you have to tip your cap to Ramírez, because he has done it in such a short time," Encarnación said. "He has an approach, he as a plan for every at-bat. ... I always watch him; we always talk about the pitcher we're facing."

"That's a great advantage for Eddie because they're both really smart hitters and to be able to feed off each other is great," Van Burkleo said. "We were playing Milwaukee, and [Jeremy] Jeffress came in, who's got a good fastball and a good breaking ball. Eddie told me when they were on deck that Ramírez said, 'He's going to throw me a first-pitch curveball and I am going to hit a home run.' And he threw him a first-pitch curveball. He didn't hit a home run, but he had a rip at it. He was right on."

As a result of his planning, prescience and power, what Ramírez can do gives the Indians an asset much like a diminutive slugger who powered last season's champs, the Houston Astros, and inspires the same kind of respect.

"José Ramírez is like an Altuve, they're not big guys," Encarnación said. "No one never expects players of that size to hit 30 home runs in the big leagues. And yet they do. They not only hit 30 home runs, they hit over 30 doubles and hit over .300. I think that's incredible. Since I get to see José Ramírez every day, I'm not surprised by the numbers he has put up, but I am surprised by the strength that he has from both sides [of the plate]."

Since the start of August 2015, when he returned to the major leagues to stay, the switch-hitter has hit both right-handed and left-handed pitchers almost equally well, crushing righties at a .305/.369/.547 clip and lefties for .309/.356/.513 while striking out about just 10 percent of the time against both.

"I think people still don't believe in his qualities as a player," Encarnacion said. "But I speak as a player, and I believe he should be on any list [of top hitters] because he is a tremendous hitter."

Indians first-baseman Yonder Alonso goes even further, saying a Ramírez at-bat is nothing short of a work of art.

"When Ramírez steps out to the plate, we may see it as a game or as an athlete going out there and doing his thing, but it really is an art. This guy is a painter; this guy is like Picasso," Alonso said last week as Ramírez drew close to hitting his 30th home run of the season before the All-Star break, after hitting 29 last season. "What he is doing is beyond what we are seeing now in the game, where you see a lot of guys hitting .220, and hitting 30 home runs. But he's a guy who is hitting .330, with an on-base percentage of .400.

"It's artwork what this guy does every day."

Teammate Andrew Miller compares Ramirez to Altuve, as well, but also to Dustin Pedroia, his former Red Sox teammate and the 2008 AL MVP.

"That's one of the beauties of baseball; you can't overlook guys because of their stature," Miller said. "There's certainly an advantage to being built like Aaron Judge. But we've all found out that somebody like that, like a José Altuve, they can go up there and be MVP-type players. Dustin Pedroia won an MVP. I think Josie is there. I am as a big a fan of Pedroia as there's ever been, and I think Josie is there, and I think he's going to be there for a long time."

Yet for all the 25-year-old Ramírez has already achieved, there are still times he feels like he did a decade ago back in Baní -- someone not recognized as one of the top players in the game, not yet at least.

"It makes me feel good sometimes to think about the fact that nobody thought I could do this. I was too small ... I had no future. But I was always the hardest worker. No one would ever work harder than me," Ramírez said.

And it's that ethic, that skill, and what his teammates say is his artistry at the plate that might make him baseball's latest little big man to win an MVP award.