Lost in the broken belts, the phantom injuries, and the seemingly doomed relationship with Pablo Sandoval, Boston's other big disappointment of 2015, Hanley Ramirez, has been quickly repairing his reputation with Red Sox fans in 2016. Hustlin' Hanley, as of right now, trucks his way around the base path, going first-to-third in multiple tight situations and doing his best to stretch singles into doubles, playing solid defense over at first base (even by non-Hanley defense standards) and, most importantly, hitting like his old self at the plate.
In many ways, the success of the Red Sox offense in 2016 centered relied on one of Hanley or Sandoval bouncing back. The former has seemingly taken the torch in that task. Of course, it's important to remember that Ramirez lit the world on fire in April during the 2015 season until he crashed into a wall in left, injured his shoulder, and fell off dramatically in performance. But a collision-based injury is a pretty decent excuse for Ramirez' decline, and it's going to be really impressive (and depressing) if he manages to reproduce that while playing first base.
Besides the hustle and just general desire to try on the baseball field, the most notable change in Ramirez's game in the early part of the season has been his distinctive change in approach. I wrote about Hanley's swing last year (comparing it to Manny's swing), but much of the swing depended on this enormous leg kick, which is often an all-or-nothing approach at the plate. That leg kick inhibited Ramirez's ability to adjust to pitches at the plate and, as a result, ended in many swings and misses, something that was only magnified after the shoulder injury.
While all of the hubbub surrounding him this offseason was focused on whether or not he could adjust to a new position, Hanley clearly identified his swing as an area that required a lot of change, something that has manifested itself in different ways this season.
What immediately jumps out here is that Ramirez (top photo, 2016) is crouched down a the plate and has significantly reduced the amount of movement of his bat pre-pitch. In 2015 (bottom photo), Ramirez would almost look like a pitcher given the amount of movement and stretch in his leg towards the mound. The de-exaggeration of Ramirez's set-up extends to the leg kick.
Now, by almost every measurement, Ramirez still utilizes a pretty big leg kick, but that fact that it's significantly less pronounced indicates two things. Firstly, it shows that there's less of a focus to hit baseballs as far as possible. Bigger leg kicks generate more power because the batter is putting more momentum behind his swing. A bigger leg kick, however, has an inverse relationship with bat control, reducing a hitter's ability to adjust to breaking and offspeed pitches. A smaller leg kick leads to more balance at the plate which equals more bat control.
That's something you just straight up didn't see last season: Hanley Ramirez taking the baseball the other way. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. First, the leg kick is even smaller than what Ramirez usually does, but what it allowed him to do was take the pitch over the middle of the plate and instead of swinging and missing, like he often did last season, he took what the pitcher gave him and drove the ball the opposite way.
And if you look at Ramirez's spray chart from last season, that's simply something that didn't happen in 2015.
If Ramirez hit a ball hard last season, it was almost always to left field. That approach not only affects somebody's batting average negatively, but it's basically giving up on the outer half of the plate in a mission to hit every baseball onto Lansdowne Street.
Ramirez recently said just about that to the media last week in Cleveland.
"I think last year I was trying to hit more homers," Ramirez said in Cleveland. "This year, I feel more compact, I'll get more singles and maybe drive the ball out of the park, but I feel more consistent with my swing this year."
Jerry Remy also did a great job breaking down Ramirez's swing in a recent broadcast.
A great explanation from Jerry Remy on the differences in Hanley Ramirez’s swing versus last season. pic.twitter.com/6WGRForpqn— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) April 7, 2016
At least from the early season results, it's pretty clear that the major adjustments Ramirez made in the offseason to his swing load have paid dividends. Not only does Hanley look like the Hanley of old, but he's performing, at least for now, like the middle-of-the-order hitter the Red Sox need in order to put together a run towards the postseason.
And while we've seen Hanley hustle and hit in the early part of the season, it's still wise to be wary of his success and whether it's going to be sustained throughout the entirety of 2016. Injuries have always been an issue for Ramirez, as has effort. The move to first base will likely help keep him healthier, given that it doesn't have the physical demands of a position like shortstop or the mental beating Hanley took while flailing around looking for fly balls.
But for now, Hanley Ramirez is playing like the cleanup hitter the Red Sox paid him to be, and that can only be good news.