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Hanley Ramirez's plate discipline needs to improve in 2016

Although his defense was startlingly bad last season, Hanley Ramirez's offense as bad in almost every way as well.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

As camp gets underway for real today, Hanley Ramirez is commanding the most focus. It’s an obvious side effect of acting as the face of the failure that was the 2015 Red Sox. Most of that focus has gone towards his defense, as he tries to shift from the worst left fielder imaginable to passable first baseman. Again, it makes sense. One can’t easily forget just how poor he looked on a nightly basis in front of the Green Monster.

One side effect of all this glove talk has been the overlooking of his offensive performance. While the end result wasn’t anywhere near as embarrassing as his defensive performance, it was still much, much worse than any reasonable person could’ve expected. In fact, had he hit like he did in 2013 or even 2014, his overall season wouldn’t have been nearly as maligned. As we hope for a rebound in 2016, we need to look at the things that he was bad at. Unfortunately, the list is really wrong.

Really, there were almost endless reasons for his struggles, and I probably won’t get to all of them. With that being said, the one that immediately jumps off the page is his minuscule walk rate. Now, Ramirez has never been Joey Votto, but he’s stayed at least around average every year, with some seasons venturing into near-elite rates. In 2015, he walked just under five percent of the time, a rate that would’ve tied for the 20th-worst in the league had he qualified for the batting title. As we’ll get to, the problems get a lot deeper than that, but at it’s most basic level, a large part of Ramirez’s struggles can be traced back to his lack of walks. Not drawing walks can be a very bad thing!

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

One of the major reasons he was unable to draw many walks can be seen with his plate discipline numbers on pitches off the plate. Using Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he swung at a lot of balls. Specifically, he hacked at 32.4 percent of pitches he saw that were out of the strike zone. (30.5 percent was the league-average rate.) To be fair, he’s done that before. In fact, Ramirez swung like that in 2013 when he ended an injury-shortened season with a ridiculous 191 wRC+.

The difference between the two years was how often he made contact on those pitches. While he swung through a lot of those pitches two seasons ago — and thus avoided a lot of weak contact — he made contact on 66 percent of those swings in 2015. For context, that was six percentage points higher than the league average. So, not only did his plate discipline cut down on his walk rate to a detrimental extent, but it also resulted in a lot of hard contact.

Looking through Ramirez’s career, hard contact has always been his calling card. There have been many questions about his defense and his attitude over the years, but his one saving grace has been how he can consistently crush every pitch sent his way. That simply wasn’t the case last year, undoubtedly due, at least partially, to his aforementioned plate discipline.

Whatever the cause, it resulted in a ground ball rate of 50 percent (per Fangraphs), something he hasn't done since 2011. That’s five percentage points higher than the league-average, and is more reminiscent of a singles hitter than David Ortiz’s heir apparent. Fangraphs also has stats that track overall contact quality, and Ramirez’s soft hit percentage was 24.3 percent. Five qualified hitters finished the year with a higher rate. All of that helped contribute to his .257 batting average on balls in play. It’s easy to point to bad luck, especially for a player with a career .327 BABIP, but quality of contact was clearly a much bigger factor.

On top of that contact quality, Ramirez’s contact trajectory proved to be problematic as well. Perhaps the most quietly impressive parts of his game has been his ability to remain productive while hitting the ball the other way. Among the 274 hitters with at least 100 balls hit to the opposite field in 2013 and 2014, Ramirez’s 160 wRC+ on those balls ranked 36th. Last season, he finished with just an 82 wRC+ to the opposite field. Unsurprisingly given the problems discussed above, the biggest issue was hitting the ball on the ground. His 32 percent ground ball rate on balls hit the other way was roughly 10 percentage points higher than his career average, leading to a disappointing .132 ISO in that split.

While he has been able to succeed while hitting the ball the other way, Ramirez really makes his impact when he pulls the ball. Last season was an extremely down year in this regard both in terms of quantity and quality. Per Fangraphs, he pulled the ball just 37 percent of the time in 2015, the second lowest rate of his career. And when he did pull the ball, he merely looked okay rather than incredible. His wRC+ on these balls was just 153 compared to his career mark of 204.

All of this brings us to what many hope is the explanation: injuries. Ramirez looked like the hitter he was advertised to be in April, before injuring his shoulder early in May. We all know how shoulder injuries can sap power, and there was a clear difference in how he hit the ball in the first month of the year compared to the rest of the year. He even started to sort of look like himself in June again until getting hurt again, this time by a line drive to the hand off the bat of Xander Bogaerts.

That can definitely explain away part of his poor offensive 2015 — particularly the lack of hard contact — but it can’t explain everything. As can be seen above, there were a lot of reasons last season went so poorly for Ramirez. Can the shoulder injury really be blamed for the poor plate discipline, which is also a major reason for his soft contact? I wish I could tell you the answer to that, but it’s something that we need to be on the lookout for as game action starts to get underway. His defense is going to remain the focus for the foreseeable future, but his success at the plate will be much more important to his overall value. There’s an almost infinite number of things for him to improve at the plate, and the Red Sox have to hope a healthy shoulder can make that happen.