Judge, Soto, Tucker and … Heliot Ramos? Giants’ young outfielder is becoming MLB’s breakout star

ARLINGTON, Texas — Heliot Ramos never had to search for a baseball mentor. He inherited one the day he was born.

His brother, Henry, is seven years older and more a role model than a peer sibling. Heliot was 9 years old when Henry was drafted into pro baseball and left Puerto Rico to begin his career in the Boston Red Sox organization. They would talk almost every day. Heliot would circle the date on his calendar when his brother was due to return home. Most of the time when siblings bicker, it’s because they’re tired of sharing space with each other. But the Ramos brothers never had enough time together to take a moment for granted.

Or take anything for granted, really. Heliot grew up with a healthy regard for how difficult it can be to rise through the minor leagues. When Henry made his major-league debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2021, it came in his 11th professional season.

Heliot followed his brother into pro baseball, signing with the San Francisco Giants as their first-round pick in 2017, and it was a dream come true two years later when the Giants signed Henry to a minor-league contract. The brothers played together in the same outfield in a spring training game in 2019 when Heliot was a 19-year-old called up from minor-league camp to fill out an exhibition roster.

Henry moved on after his one season with the Giants at Triple-A Sacramento, but the brothers looked forward to playing together again this past winter with Santurce in the Puerto Rican winter league. Several weeks together ended up becoming just two games. Henry had an offer from the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization, and team officials did not want him to keep playing winter ball. It was a lucrative offer and Henry already had fulfilled his dream with the Diamondbacks, followed by a 23-game stint with the Cincinnati Reds last year. So Henry stepped away from Santurce and headed east.

The two brothers have never been farther apart than this season. Yet they still talk almost every day, time difference aside. And it’s been more fun than ever to check box scores and keep tabs on one another.

“He’s balling right now,” Heliot Ramos said of Henry, who is batting .323 with seven home runs in 52 games in Korea. “He might be an All-Star there, who knows?”

Astoundingly, the same might be true for Heliot. The 24-year-old outfielder didn’t join the Giants until May 8 but he already ranks second on the team in bWAR behind third baseman Matt Chapman. Among major-league outfielders with at least 100 at-bats, Ramos’ .973 OPS is better than everyone but the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Juan Soto and the Houston Astros’ Kyle Tucker.

Heliot Ramos hasn’t merely been the Giants’ best position player over the past month. He’s been arguably baseball’s biggest breakout star in the first half. He made an impact yet again Saturday afternoon, providing all the Giants’ offense in a 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field.

He smacked an RBI double in the first inning and a two-run homer in the third off Rangers left-hander Andrew Heaney, both times scoring leadoff hitter Austin Slater. He also made a running catch in center field and two more grabs that required communication with Slater in right-center, looking way more comfortable than someone with limited reps at the position since 2021 has any right to be.

“What do you say about Ramos?” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s pretty incredible what he’s doing. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. The play he makes in center field, I wasn’t sure it’d be caught and he makes it easy. It shows you what a little confidence can do.”

Ramos has four home runs in his past six games. He’s reached base in 12 of his past 15 plate appearances. He became the 13th player in the Giants’ 67-year San Francisco era to reach base six times (via hit or walk) in a nine-inning game on Wednesday — something Willie Mays only did once and Barry Bonds, remarkably, never achieved. He’s hitting .410 with 16 hits, eight walks and 13 RBIs over his past 11 games. He’s reached base in 26 of 28 games since joining the Giants from Triple-A Sacramento, when he was promoted more because of need than perceived merit.

Based on his physical gifts alone, his breakout shouldn’t come as a total surprise. But it’s clearly nothing that the organization saw coming.

Ramos was one of the first cuts from major-league camp this past spring, optioned out barely midway through the exhibition schedule on March 11. Last year, despite being on the 40-man roster, Ramos was passed over for promotion in favor of everyone from Luis Matos, a prospect two years his junior, to fringe outfielder Bryce Johnson, to waiver pickup Cal Stevenson, to dinged-up trade acquisition A.J Pollock, to 2022 draftee Wade Meckler. The Giants had signed corner outfielders Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger before last season, at least temporarily bricking off his path to big-league time. They made a six-year commitment to center fielder Jung Hoo Lee this past offseason.

As soul-crushing as it can be to be sent down, it’s often a worse feeling to watch as others around you — and even others behind you — get called up.

Those were the times when Heliot was grateful that Henry was a text or a FaceTime away. Then and now.

“Oh, he’s watching,” Heliot said, smiling. “He just reminds me, ‘When you’re batting leadoff, do your thing. Hunt fastballs. Attack, attack, attack all the time.’ He doesn’t want me to be the prey. He wants me to be the hunter. So that’s all I’m trying to do.”

At the plate, anyway. The Giants are getting almost as surprising a defensive contribution from Ramos in the outfield, where he threw out two runners shortly after his promotion and has taken seamlessly direct routes on one running catch after another. He is poised to fill a glaring need in center field for the Giants, who lost Lee to season-ending shoulder surgery last week and had to send Matos back to Sacramento when he didn’t adjust along with the league following his scorching week in mid-May.

Ramos had played a total of four big-league games in center before making the start there on Friday. He only played 12 games in center for Sacramento last season and hasn’t been a full-timer at the position since he was a 19-year-old in 2019 while splitting time between Single-A San Jose and Double-A Richmond.

“We’ll see what it looks like,” said Melvin, after revealing Friday’s lineup.

It’s looking pretty good so far. Ramos took extra bases away from Josh Smith on a drive that had an expected batting average of .650 in the eighth inning. Perhaps more encouraging than his ability to read and run down a hard-hit drive were the back-to-back catches he made in the fourth, stepping in front of Slater both times. The hardest thing for a young center fielder to learn is to take charge and play the position with the fearlessness and assertiveness that it requires.

After the first catch, Slater turned to Ramos and told him to make sure he shouted as he called for the ball. After the second catch, Slater turned toward Ramos and nodded with approval.

“I want him to play as loud as he can and with as much confidence as he can,” Slater said. “After the second one, he apologized for calling it late. I told him, ‘It’s OK, just call it and I’ll get out of the way.’ I wanted to reassure him that I heard him and it was totally fine. I want him to be confident and get every ball he can. He’ll get comfortable with the more reps he gets. There’s an adjustment period in any outfield getting used to playing with someone — how they call the ball, what they can and can’t get to. I’m impressed so far and he’ll continue to get better.”

The reads in center can be easier and truer than the reads on hooking or slicing drives in the outfield corners. The complicated part of the adjustment is pre-pitch positioning and doubling the amount of communication you must do. There is nothing more predictable than a chalk line. Another human being, not so much.

“Sometimes moving around can be tough but I’ll get used to it,” Ramos said. “I feel good about it.”

Melvin for once felt good about his rested bullpen options following Wednesday’s travel day and Logan Webb’s seven-inning start in Friday’s series-opening victory here. He got 4 2/3 effective innings from Spencer Howard that included some loud contact, and with nearly unlimited relief options, he didn’t hesitate to cash out and go to the bullpen. Erik Miller, Ryan Walker and Tyler Rogers continued their excellent seasons with 3 1/3 scoreless innings.

Camilo Doval endured one of those Brian Wilson ninth innings that Duane Kuiper used to refer to as torture baseball, issuing a leadoff walk and giving up an infield single that was chopped off the plate, then narrowly avoiding what would’ve been a tying, two-run hit from Leody Taveras that landed no more than a yard foul down the right-field line. Doval hasn’t had ideal command all season and he missed plenty of locations against the Rangers but got Taveras to fly out to record his 11th save.

Slater, who entered with a .140 average and whose recent activation from the concussion list enraged the less sophisticated corners of the online fan base, got on base three times from the leadoff spot. He expressed gratitude to Melvin for showing the confidence to put him right back into a visible and important place in the lineup against a left-handed starter.

The Giants could lead off Ramos against right-handers and bat him second behind Slater against lefties. They could even try Jorge Soler in the leadoff spot again to get him going. There might be no better way for Melvin to help a struggling hitter gain traction than to stick Ramos behind him.

It certainly made things simpler for Slater on Saturday when he batted while Ramos gave off infrared heat from the on-deck circle.

“It’s just get on base,” Slater said. “If he keeps this up, I’ll be getting a lot more fastballs. I’m OK with that.”

(Photo of Heliot Ramos: Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

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