GOODYEAR, Ariz. — First, it starts with a laugh and a quick, ‘Oh, man.’ Then, the eyebrows are raised as the deeper nuances of pitching strategies are analyzed, searching for an answer that isn’t there.

Finally, the admission of impending doom and defeat.

“Hit him, scare him,” Mike Clevinger joked. “That’s a tough question.”

It’s such a tough question, in fact, that major-league pitchers have been trying to answer it for multiple seasons now.

How do you attack Indians slugger Jose Ramirez?

Seemingly overnight, Ramirez was transformed from looking like he’d be a nice utility infielder who can hit from both sides of the plate and move around defensively into a perennial MVP contender and a terror at the plate.

He hit .312 with an .825 OPS and was worth 4.7 fWAR in 2016, but that was only the first act before the show-stopping numbers. Since then, he’s put together back-to-back MVP finalist seasons, finishing third in voting both times. He belted 29 home runs and led the majors with 56 doubles in 2017, and last year notched career highs with 39 home runs, 105 RBI and 34 stolen bases, earning a combined 14.6 fWAR between ’17 and ’18.

The list of players with more fWAR the past two seasons: Mike Trout (the best player in the game) and Mookie Betts (last year’s AL MVP).

>>Join our Cleveland Indians Fans Facebook group for the latest news, updates and to join in on the conversation.

 

“He covers the whole plate, so I don’t know,” Clevinger said. “I’d have to try to play the chess game and see what he’s hunting and try to get him off balance, which is really hard to do.”

An elite contact rate (87.5 percent the past two years, seventh in the game) combined with an ability to switch hit, and all of it compounded with that amount of power, doesn’t leave many options. The goal for opposing pitchers is to get any hitter to two strikes. When they get there with Ramirez, the question still remains: Now what?

“It’s so hard when a lot of the scenarios are usually a guy that’ll be all-or-nothing or a guy that’ll be the put-it-in-play, move-the-runners-around kind of guy so you kind of know what you’re dealing with,” Clevinger said. “With a guy like him, the first two pitches he can go for the second deck and then wait until he gets two strikes and now he’s made you throw 15 pitches and just slapped a single to left.

“That’s definitely the most lethal combination you can have.”

Ramirez, still only 26 years old, stands as not only one of the most valuable assets in baseball — the five-year, $26 million extension he signed before the 2017 season that includes two club options and could be a seven-year, $50 million deal is one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game — but also an integral part to the club’s World Series hopes in 2019, not just for his talent but because of the amount of roster turnover this past winter.

The lineup, at least on paper, looks to be shallower than it has been in the past, largely because of the absence of Michael Brantley. At the very least, there are more question marks. Ramirez and Francisco Lindor have carried the lineup during stretches in the past. Their load-bearing capacity in 2019 might need be to raised even further, and Lindor is already dealing with a calf injury.

Along with Ramirez, Lindor and closer Brad Hand, the starting rotation will be needed to shoulder a heavy load as well for the Indians to make more noise this October than in the past two years. The rotation is elite and arguably the game’s best. Most are just glad Ramirez wears the same uniform.

When asked if pitchers basically just have to rely on sheer hope, Shane Bieber laughed and replied, “Exactly.”

Many said the goal is to keep Ramirez off balance, but also admitted that was easier said than done.

“He’s got the whole package,” Bieber said. “You can’t show him too many pitches. The more pitches he sees, the better he’s going to get. Hopefully, he just gets himself out and you go from there.”

What about Clevinger’s “hit him” strategy?

“Yeah, that’ll work, too,” Bieber said.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.