Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Hanley Ramirez.
The Question: Can Hanley Ramirez keep the power he showed last year?
Even without a certain someone in the middle of the lineup, the Red Sox should be able to score a lot of runs this year. Mookie Betts should be a safe bet to remain productive, and the same goes for Dustin Pedroia. Xander Bogaerts has been inconsistent, as has Jackie Bradley, but after the smoke clears from the hot and cold streaks they should be a little better than average. Andrew Benintendi is no sure thing, but he’s as safe as a rookie can be. Then, there’s Hanley Ramirez, who I think is the most important bat in this lineup. The straw that stirs the drink, as they say.
When Ramirez is on his game, he is a dynamic hitter and one of the most feared in all of baseball. We’ve seen it over some points in his career, likely none as notable as his 90-game stretch in 2013 with the Dodgers. Unfortunately, he’s not always that guy. Obviously, we know how low it can get by thinking back to 2015, but even when he doesn’t get quite that bad he’s still not the same guy. Last season, he was the dynamic power bat we all know he’s capable of being, and the Red Sox will need that again in 2017 without David Ortiz’ presence.
Home runs were up across the league, but it felt less fluky for Ramirez than others because we’ve seen this from him before. He smashed 30 home runs in 2016 and posted an Isolated Power of .219, the latter number coming in 57 points above the league-average. It’s not Ortiz-ian power, but the Red Sox will certainly take a repeat performance.
What’s more interesting about all of this is that Ramirez wasn’t putting up these big power numbers all year. Instead, most of it came in the second half when he was showing off Ortiz-ian power. After the All-Star break he posted a ridiculous .309 ISO -- which was the sixth best mark of the second half — compared to a lackluster .147 mark prior to the break. I think it’s safe to say he won’t be able to carry that kind of performance over a full season, though it’d be cool if he did. However, he changed a few things in his game that will be important to watch for as this coming season unfolds so we can try to tell if he’ll be the power-hitting version of himself.
The most important thing, and one that is intuitively obvious, is that Ramirez simply needs to keep the ball off the ground. After posting a ground ball rate slightly above 50 percent in the first half, he knocked it all the way down to under 46 percent in the second half. It’s way easier to hit home runs when you hit the ball in the air, in case you weren’t sure. The first half this year isn’t the only time he’s run into that problem, either. It was a major reason for his poor performance back in 2015 when he hit grounders exactly 50 percent of the time. He had the same issue at the end of his Marlins tenure as well, which was another rough part of his career. Basically, when Ramirez is playing poorly it’s when he is constantly hitting the ball into the ground.
Beyond the ground balls, the now-33-year-old started pulling the ball a lot more in the second half. While this kind of tendency can lead to more shifts and a dent in batting average, it is also extremely helpful to power. This is particularly true for right-handed hitters at Fenway who can use the Green Monster to their advantage. Not only does pulling the ball make it easier to hit home runs in general, but it leads to more doubles at Fenway, too.
The final piece of this comes down to Ramirez’ plate discipline, which actually got a little worse in 2016 and specifically in the second half. He wasn’t bad by any means, as he still walked more than nine percent of the time and struck out less than 20 percent of the time, but his strikeout rate rose. This was the result of swinging through more pitches, which obviously sounds like a negative trend. However, according to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, the lack of contact came on pitches out of the zone. In other words, he made contact on the good pitches to hit and not the pitches that would result in weak contact. It’s unclear how sustainable that kind of trend can be, but it’s at least a reason not to be overly worried about his rising strikeout rate.
Staying in the plate discipline area of his game, Ramirez became much more aggressive on his pitches in the second half. He’s always been a somewhat aggressive hitter, but he didn’t wait around at all at the end of 2016. When he saw a pitch up in the zone that he liked, he swung away. Just look at the two zone plots from the first and second halves.
If you need an example of what he does with pitches up in the zone, just watch this.
The trends above help explain why he was able to go on such a tear in the second half last year but they are no guarantee to carry over this year. One positive is that he’ll be spending a lot of time at DH this year in a move that should keep him fresh. He’s been great as a DH in the past — his career OPS at the position is 1.014 — but he’s never done it over a full season. It’s hard to know how one will react to so much downside. The good news is he’ll likely get his share of time in the field as well, so he should get the benefits of the position without all of the downside.
The Red Sox should have a good lineup this year, but whether or not it can come close to what it was last year comes down to replacing Ortiz’ power. Ramirez doing something resembling his second half would go a long way. If he’s going to do that, he’ll need to keep the ball in the air and stay aggressive on pitches up in the zone. Him being a threat in the middle of the lineup would go a long way for the 2017 Red Sox.