Perhaps the biggest storyline of the spring was how well Hanley Ramirez would play at first base. We all knew first base defense almost certainly wouldn’t decide the Red Sox season, but there was plenty of angst after his performance in left field a year ago. In the first couple months of the year, Ramirez looks at least like a competent first baseman and some nights he looks flat-out good. It’s gotten to the point where the Red Sox may not have to find a new first baseman next after in anticipation of a presumptive move to designated hitter for Ramirez. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all roses for last year’s big signing, as he’s struggling mightily at the plate. It’s getting concerning.
Ramirez is now hitting .272/.336/.382 through his first 241 plate appearances, good for a 91 wRC+. That’s a mark that puts him on par with up-the-middle players like Yadier Molina and Elvis Andrus as well as other struggling corner guys like Brett Lawrie and Jose Abreu. At the end of the day, it’s unacceptable production from someone who was supposed to something close to a lineup anchor. it hasn’t mattered so far with the rest of the offense playing so well, but at some point something’s gotta give.
Obviously, Ramirez struggled at the plate last year as well, but it happened in a different way. In 2015, he suffered from a .257 batting average on balls in play, a large chunk of which was his fault but it also gave hope that he could bounce back. This season, he’s struggling despite having an above-average .331 BABIP. Instead, he’s suffering from a concerning increase in strikeout rate (up to 20 percent for the first time in his career), and a concerning lack of power. It’s the latter I want to get into today.
Through Wednesday’s action, Boston’s first baseman has a .111 Isolated Power. That’s simply not going to cut it. It would be a career-low for Ramirez over a full season, and it wouldn’t be particularly close. Prior to this season, his career-low was .136. It ranks all the way down at 148th on the leaderboard among the 176 qualified batters. There are a few factors combining to create this issue.
The first is that he’s pounding the ball into the ground far too often. This is an extremely obvious statement, but it’s hard to hit for consistent power if you’re rarely hitting the ball in the air. As we speak, he’s the not-so-proud owner of a 52 percent ground ball rate, the highest rate of his career and the second straight season in which he’s topping the 50 percent mark. Among those same 176 qualified batters, he is tied for the 26th highest name on the list, and it’s hard to find many impressive names ahead of him on the list. However, to be fair, Xander Bogaerts is directly behind Ramirez on the leaderboard. Ground balls aren’t ideal, but it’s far from the only issue.
The next one is the fact that he isn’t pulling balls like he used to. This was a trend that started in 2015, and it’s only gotten worse this season. Now, we’re at the point where Ramirez has an almost perfect split in terms of which fields he is hitting to, with rates of 33.5/33.5/32.9 to the pull/center/opposite fields. There are positives to that kind of approach, mainly regarding a batter’s ability to turn batted balls into hits. However, it’s not the best approach for someone who’s expected to hit for power. All but 21 qualified batters have a higher pull-rate, and those in front of Ramirez are almost exclusively middle infielders and slap-happy outfielders. In Ramirez’s best seasons, he was pulling the ball around 43 percent of the time and doing a ton of damage. To wit, he boasts a career .342 ISO on pulled balls over his career.
Not only is he not pulling the ball very much this year, but the damage isn’t there when he does. Specifically, he has a pathetic .056 ISO on pulled balls this year, the fifth lowest mark in the majors. To add a little more context to this, the league-average hitters boasts a .284 ISO on pulled balls. This gets back to the ground ball issue, as 71 percent of his pulled batted balls are being put on the ground. Now, most batters pull ground balls — that’s why the shift has become so popularized — but this is at a higher rate than most. In fact, it is the 21st highest rate out of a group of 180 batters.
All of this brought me to a hypothesis that Ramirez is starting to struggle turning on fastballs and doing damage against velocity. Comparing this season to his pre-Red Sox career, there might be something to it. For one thing, he’s hitting more ground balls against fastballs than he had in the past, though not to an overly significant extent. The same could be said for his swinging strike rate, too. Additionally, he’s having trouble pulling these pitches, which lends some credence to my theory. Check out this spray chart below, which shows where pitches of certain categories end up. You’ll see that the balls to left field are almost all breaking balls of offspeed pitches.
Finally, he’s also not hitting fastballs in the air. Like most power hitters, Ramirez used to do most of his damage teeing off on velocity. That hasn’t been the case in 2016. This time, we’ll be looking at fly ball rates based on strike zone plots, comparing his pre-Red Sox career to 2016.
The great Alex Speier wrote the other day that we may be looking at Ramirez’s decline, and it’s looking more and more like he may be right. The defense has been great to see, but it doesn’t mean a ton if his offense continues to struggle like this. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of encouraging signs with respect to his power. Between the ground balls, the lack of pull tendencies and the lack of success against velocity, we may be seeing a new Hanley Ramirez, and it’s not one any of us wanted to see.