Earlier this summer, for a research project, I had occasion to review the career of former Dodger slugger Pedro Guerrero, a favorite player of my youth. Guerrero spent the first few years of his major league career-or 1978-1980, for those too young to remember-waiting for Steve Garvey and company to grow old. In the interim, he was forced to learn other positions, playing every spot except for catcher and shortstop, finally cracking the Dodgers’ lineup as a right fielder for a couple of years. When Ron Cey was traded to the Cubs following the 1982 season, Guerrero began a nasty, short, and brutish war of attrition with third base. His range at the hot corner was above-average, and his arm was strong, but his footwork was lousy. The media tended to focus on his errors (46 in 1983-1984) rather than the plays he made, but Guerrero paid his critics no mind. “I can f—ing hit” was his blunt refrain, and brother, could he ever. Guerrero finished in the top three in Equivalent Average three times over the 1982-1985 span, often carrying a meager Dodger offense on his back for weeks at a time.

I’m reminded of Guerrero because I swear I’m seeing the reincarnation of that one-man Dodger blue wrecking crew in the form of Manny Ramirez right now, night after night after night. Ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t been paying attention, know this: Manny Ramirez can f—ing hit. Since coming to the Dodgers in a three-way deal consummated just moments before the July 31 trading deadline, he’s batting .396/.498/.776 with 14 home runs in 166 plate appearances, while helping his new club climb from two games behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West to 3½ ahead of them. On the heels of his controversial exit from Boston, he showed up in Tinseltown, chose jersey number 99, promised to cut his dreadlocks in due course (but barely obliged), ignited a merchandising craze, and charmed his fans, teammates, and even his stony-faced manager with his between-innings misadventures. Amid all of the distractions, he’s simply beaten the tar out of the ball, and the Dodger offense has begun to click. On Wednesday night, he crushed a pair of opposite-field home runs in Petco Park, one of the majors’ least homer-friendly venues.

Ramirez is taking advantage of an easier league and a softer schedule than he faced in Boston, not to mention a slate of pitchers that appear to have little idea of how to pitch to him. If they bother at all, that is; Ramirez has drawn 14 intentional walks as a Dodger, a total that already ranks fifth in the league, and may well rank second by season’s end (nobody’s going to catch Albert Pujols at 32 and counting). As well as he’s hit, Ramirez’s presence in the lineup hasn’t had as drastic an effect on scoring as you might expect due to the Dodgers’ notorious streakiness, as can be seen in a recent 10-game span in which they scraped together just 21 runs. Ramirez hit .297/.381/.405 during that stretch, and didn’t drive in a run until the final game, but he wasn’t the only one at fault; his teammates hit an even more feeble .239/.293/.350 while going about 1-for-75 with runners in scoring position. As such, the overall uptick in scoring since Ramirez joined the lineup isn’t huge, though his impact on the offense’s underlying performance is more clear:

Period      R/G   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    W-L
3/30-7/31  4.17  .256/.321/.376   54-54
8/1-9/10   4.37  .277/.346/.450   21-17

Since his arrival in LA, much has been made about Ramirez’s effect on the hitters in front of him as well. The notion of lineup protection-the mere threat of a fearsome on-deck hitter elevating the performance of the hitter ahead of him by inducing pitchers to throw more hittable pitches so as to avoid a walk-has been at least somewhat debunked over the years, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the Dodgers’ stats, as Jeff Kent and Andre Ethier have enjoyed their hottest stretches of the season batting in front of Manny. Indulge me, and let’s compare the performances of his teammates with and without him batting behind them:

In Front         PA   HR    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
David Ortiz     241   14   .252/.349/.500
J.D. Drew       161   10   .252/.391/.591
Kevin Youkilis   34    2   .379/.412/.724
Sean Casey        1    0   .000/.000/.000
Red Sox Total   437   26   .262/.368/.548
Jeff Kent        83    1   .380/.410/.481
Andre Ethier     55    3   .500/.582/.957
Russell Martin   23    0   .227/.261/.227
N. Garciaparra    4    0   .000/.000/.000
Pablo Ozuna       3    0   .333/.333/.333
Hong-Chih Kuo     1    0   .000/.000/.000
Dodgers Total   169    4   .381/.432/.568
Total Total     606   30   .297/.386/.554
Top 4           540   28   .299/.394/.568

Not in Front     PA   HR    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
David Ortiz     192    4   .282/.414/.455
J.D. Drew       290    9   .295/.417/.485
Kevin Youkilis  526   23   .309/.386/.550
Sean Casey      187    0   .347/.406/.424
Red Sox Total  1195   36   .308/.401/.500
Jeff Kent       383   10   .252/.305/.394
Andre Ethier    480   17   .277/.340/.476
Russell Martin  568   12   .280/.382/.401
N. Garciaparra  154    6   .241/.292/.404
Pablo Ozuna      84    0   .253/.280/.316
Hong-Chih Kuo    13    0   .273/.273/.364
Dodgers Total  1682   45   .268/.338/.416
Total Total    2877   81   .284/.364/.450
Top 4          1345   40   .274/.357/.450

Now, I’m not going to stand on the observation deck of the gold-plated Baseball Prospectus World Headquarters skyscraper and proclaim this to be the most statistically valid sample set of all time. But it is interesting, particularly if we narrow the focus from the performances of all the players who have batted in front of Ramirez with and without his presence (where we have almost five times as many PA in the “without” heap, the majority of which were accumulated by players with less than 40 PA in front of him this year) to the four most frequent hitters (Ortiz, Drew, Kent and Ethier, who have about 2½ times as many PA in the “without” heap). With the Red Sox alone, the effect is mostly a wash; with Ramirez in the lineup, the hitters in front of him have a lower OBP that’s largely canceled out by a higher SLG. With the Dodgers, the difference is dramatic, though dismissable as a small-sample fluke (what, you’re expecting Ethier to bat .500?). Still, the latter is a torrid enough performance that the overall difference among the top four hitters still comes out to more than 150 points of OPS. Apply as much salt as you want before digesting that; it’s still part of the weird arc of Ramirez’s season and the two teams who have employed him.

I’ve been saying this since I covered the Red Sox for Baseball Prospectus 2007, but feeling it for the better part of his tenure in Boston: Ramirez deserves to be considered among the game’s all-time greatest hitters. Among players with at least 5,000 career plate appearances, he ranks 15th in Equivalent Average (adjusted for all-time version), and if you raise the bar to 8,000 PA, he’s 12th:

Batter             EqA    PA
Babe Ruth*        .363  10617
Ted Williams*     .359   9789
Barry Bonds*      .355  12606
Albert Pujols     .345   5311
Mickey Mantle#    .342   9909
Lou Gehrig*       .341   9660
Rogers Hornsby    .337   9475
Frank Thomas      .336  10074
Mark McGwire      .334   7660
Stan Musial*      .332  12712
Willie Mays       .330  12493
Ty Cobb*          .330  13072
Dick Allen        .328   7314
Hank Aaron        .328  13940
Manny Ramirez     .328   8938
Mel Ott*          .328  11337
Joe Jackson*      .327   5690
Johnny Mize*      .327   7371
Joe DiMaggio      .326   7671
Dan Brouthers*    .326   7676
Edgar Martinez    .326   8672
*: left-handed; #: switch-hitter

How about this: among right-handed hitters with at least 8,000 PA, Manny Ramirez ranks fifth all-time in EqA, behind just Hornsby, Thomas, Mays, and Aaron. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that some of those guys could hit.

It will be fascinating to see what lies ahead for Ramirez. His trade out of Boston quashed the pair of $20 million club options that his employers held on his services for 2009-2010, but before that, his in-season agitation for the Red Sox to decide whether to exercise the first of those options generated a firestorm of controversy which included accusations from teammates, club officials, and some of the most powerful baseball writers in the business that he faked injuries and ultimately quit on his team. Reading the coverage back in late July, one would have thought we were amid a cross between the Boston Strangler, Godzilla, Derek Bell, and the second coming of Hal Chase. There are rumors he’ll be seeking a four-year, $100 million deal this winter, outrageous, Boras-fueled numbers for a player in his age-37 to age-40 seasons, and one who may already be unfit for any position this side of designated hitter.

Both before and after the trade, I viewed the anti-Ramirez coverage with a jaundiced eye, though I say this while disclosing that I do have partisan interests on both ends of this deal: I live in New York and root for the Yankees and against the Red Sox, having done so for the past 13 years; and I’m also a lifelong Dodger fan, remaining so even beyond the influences of my current geographical locale. Even with that in mind, one can’t ignore the combination of the following without inducing a fair amount of skepticism that we were getting the real story regarding Ramirez’s departure:

  • A long history of particularly gruesome endings that numerous superstars’ Boston tenures have come to (Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant).
  • The cozy relationship between certain high-profile Boston-linked writers and Red Sox brass.
  • The consistent manner in which the current John Henry/Larry Lucchino/Theo Epstein regime has aired its laundry by attempting to negotiate its most controversial proceedings through the media (the Alex Rodriguez non-trade, the Curt Schilling trade, the departures of several members of the 2004 champions)

Given all of that and the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle, how much of the Manny-quit-on-the-team meme can one endure before such “news” starts to fail the smell test? At the end of the day, all we really know is that the Red Sox had been making more or less annual attempts to trade Ramirez by placing him on waivers following the baseball season since at least 2003, when he was less than halfway into the eight-year, $160 million deal that he’d signed back in December 2000, but that they were unable to complete a deal until July 31, 2008. Perhaps that’s because Manny was universally viewed as a head case and a pernicious influence on clubhouse chemistry. Or perhaps that’s because the Red Sox were unwilling to kick in more than a fraction ($7 million) of a single season’s salary before they were willing to punt a hitter whose production over the past seven and a half years was surpassed only by Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.

No matter which team he’s playing for, Ramirez is a unique and occasionally frustrating ballplayer, with a back story stocked with urban legends, provocative and often counterproductive statements and actions, visible lapses (particularly afield) and absences… and one of the most potent bats you’ll ever see. As a fan of a rival team, I used to loathe his presence while selectively buying into much of the negative hype surrounding him, but Ben McGrath’s excellent New Yorker piece heightened my appreciation for his talents and his idiosyncrasies. Beyond the microscope of the Boston media, Ramirez is renowned for his work ethic as well as his quirks, and the coverage of his brief tenure in LA has been as glowingly positive as that of his final days in Boston was negative; he’s been hailed by Joe Torre and his new teammates in a manner that suggests imminent knighthood if not sainthood. Slugging .776 will do that, even if-to borrow a phrase from Ball Four-you have hair halfway down to your ass.

To put it another way: if Ramirez is such a negative presence on a club, how come Matt Kemp had to double over to avoid visibly busting a gut in front of the cameras after Manny made a running basket catch of a fly ball late in Wednesday night’s contest? I don’t know the answer to that beyond a weak invocation of the old saw about how winning creates good chemistry, nor do I know what to think about the craziness that his future almost certainly holds. I just know that Ramirez is as hot as any hitter in baseball right now, and he constitutes as entertaining a show as the game has to offer. I’ll be watching.