Just a few days ago I talked about how the Red Sox lineup has been looking a bit shallower lately, and that the bottom of the lineup needed to step up. In the couple of games since, they have. Still, the overall performance of this lineup has been inconsistent lately even if it’s still been largely effective.
The good news: amidst all the inconsistency there have still been players performing well above what could reasonably be expected from them. Dustin Pedroia has gotten most of the publicity in this area, and for good reason. The dude is hitting .873 in the second half (don’t fact check this). Hanley Ramirez has maybe been one short step behind Pedroia since the All-Star break, but he’s still been incredible. I think we all realize that his power surge has been impressive, but I for one did not realize just how strong he’s been.
If we’re being technical, the power surge probably started on July 20 when he hit three dingers against the Giants. This post is going to be dealing entirely in arbitrary endpoints, though, and moving the start date up a few days to the start of the second half makes it much easier to do that. Sue me. Anyway, yeah, Ramirez has been stupid since the second half began. The power is what’s carrying him, though. He’s hitting .274/.325/.554 with a 126 wRC+ and a whopping 13 homers in this span, giving him 163 percent of his home run total in the first half in 52 percent of the plate appearances. Seems decent, imo. It’s not just the home runs, either, as his .280 Isolated Power is the 13th best in all of baseball in the second half.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say Ramirez is looking like Prime Hanley, at least in terms of power. I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict we’ll never see a 50 steal season from him again. Still, this is hugely encouraging to see as the team finds itself in the midst of an overcrowded playoff chase. The question is: What’s different, and how sustainable is this stretch?
The first thing I looked for was which pitches he was hitting harder. There are plenty of issues with the new Statcast data, and specifically with exit velocity. Specifically, people tend to look at it too closely and in a vacuum. Despite that, it can still be a useful data point. Oddly enough, there hasn’t been any significant change in batted ball speed off any time of pitch, per Brooks Baseball. This lends credence to the idea that exit velocity simply isn’t everything, and often isn’t even the most important thing.
For Ramirez, the most important improvement that I can see is that he has changed his approach to play more into his strength. The first is that he’s simply pulling the ball more often. This is especially true in since August 1, as he’s raised his pull rate by about ten percentage points in that time. We’ll get back to this a bit later, but I think it goes without saying that it’s easier to hit for power when you pull the ball.
The other change — another obvious one — is that he’s hitting the ball in the air. How many home runs have you seen that were grounders? I bet not many! In the first half, Ramirez was hitting the ball on the ground half of the time he put it in play. That’s bad! In the second half, he’s reduced that rate to just 42 percent. That’s better!
Whether this is an intentional change or one that just sort of happened is impossible for me to say, and I’m too tired to wildly speculate. Still, it’s happening, and that’s important.
So, with this stuff in mind, I hope you’ll indulge me as we look at a couple of zone profile comparisons.
This first one is comparing first-half Hanley’s (left) ground ball tendencies relative to pitch location to second-half Hanley’s (right). The biggest difference to me in this area is that Ramirez is simply not rolling over pitches he should drive. If you look at the main differences here, it’s that he’s heavily reduced his ground ball rate on pitches middle-in. Even if he was hitting those grounders hard in the first half, which is a fair bet based on where the pitch is, he’s probably not getting more than a single, and certainly not more than a double. In the second half, he’s lifting these pitches and giving himself much more of a chance to do real damage.
This side-by-side compares Ramirez’s first half slugging percentage by portion of the zone to his second half. Once again there is a key portion of this zone that stands out to me. It, surprisingly enough, is not that he has a 1.000 SLG on pitches below the zone on the inner half, though that is pretty neat. Instead, it’s his success on pitches up and in. To me, this is representative of Ramirez showing quicker hands and better bat control. These are the best pitches to do damage on, but against major-league velocity it is just as easy to pop these up to the shortstop. The fact that he’s also pulling the ball more often points to quicker hands as well.
So, the why for the question of how Ramirez is hitting for so much power lately isn’t super interesting. He’s simply doing damage on pitches that he should, likely thanks to an improved swing. The question of whether or not he can keep it up is tough to answer. Well, depending on what you mean. I’m confident that he’s not a true-talent .280 ISO hitter even though that would be sweet. However, he’s hitting like a guy who can be a .200 ISO hitter rather than the .147 guy he was in the first half. As long as he continues to punish pitches when his opponents challenge him, there’s no reason he can’t be a force in this lineup through September, and hopefully October.