If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the Red Sox so far this season, you’ve certainly noticed that this team has been utterly unable to hit for any power in 2017. This was something of a concern after David Ortiz retired, but to most it appeared that there was enough collective pop in the lineup even if there wasn’t one big slugger in the middle of the lineup to replace the legend’s power production.
If any one player was going to be the one to take Ortiz’ spot, Hanley Ramirez was the most popular pick. He was never going to be the same guy — that’s an unfair expectation to place on anybody — but he is the best pure power hitter on the team and is going to be spending most of his time in the designated hitter slot. The thinking was the lack of focus towards playing a position in the field would only help his production at the plate. The theory made sense, but thus far it hasn’t come to fruition.
Through his first 71 plate appearances — obviously, not the largest of samples — Ramirez is hitting just .215/.282/.308. After adjusting for park factors, he has been the 28th worst hitter among the 186 batters who are currently qualified for the batting title. A noticeable lack of power has been among his main issues. He has just one home run and three doubles to start the season, giving him a pitiful .092 Isolated Power that is the 37th lowest mark among the same 186 batters.
This is all obviously bad news, and having a struggling hitter like this right in the middle of the lineup is always going to lead to team-wide slumps like the one Boston is experiencing right now. The good news is there are signs that this shouldn’t be a long-term problem for the right-handed slugger.
Through his first 16 games, Ramirez is doing pretty much everything you want to see from a power hitter except actually hitting for power. To put it really simply, he’s hitting the ball well on a regular basis. Fangraphs qualifies batted balls into three buckets: Hard hit, Medium hit, and Soft hit. Early on in the season, Ramirez is hitting the ball hard 38.5 percent of the time. That ranks 46th in baseball (top 25 percent of the league) and would be his highest mark since 2013 when he was among the best hitters in baseball before getting hurt. On the other end of the spectrum, he is hitting the ball softly only 13.5 percent of the time. That is the 34th lowest mark in baseball and would be his lowest mark since his rookie year.
So, if quality of contact isn’t the issue one would assume it probably comes down to launch angle. In other words, he may be hitting the ball well but he’s pounding it into the ground. That was the case on Wednesday night, but it hasn’t been all season. In fact, his ground ball rate is currently 38.5 percent, which would be his lowest mark since 2009. He’s making up for it by hitting line drives at a higher rate than any other point in his career and fly balls more often than he has since 2009.
This distribution seems like it should result in more offensive production. Fly balls instead of ground balls may hurt batting average on balls in play somewhat, but the high line drive would make up for it. More importantly, the combination of good contact and more balls in the air would presumably lead to more doubles and home runs. A big part of the issue, which is kind of obvious, is that he isn’t getting enough of his fly balls out of the park. Just five percent of his fly balls have left the yard compared to a career rate over 14 percent. To make matters even stranger, his average fly ball distance is 43rd among the 251 players with at least 30 batted balls, per Baseball Savant.
Ramirez’ issue has simply been where he’s hitting the ball. Although he’s never been an extreme pull hitter over his career, he’s currently carrying his lowest pull rate since 2011 and the second lowest of his career. To make up for it, he’s hitting the ball up the middle more often than ever. This is usually indicative of good contact — and again, Ramirez has made good contact this year — but it’s also the hardest place in every park to hit it out. That has clearly been the case for Ramirez this year, as you can see in this spray chart from Baseball Savant.
So, a quick note about this chart. Baseball Savant tracks data during spring training as well, so those home runs to left field are from March. What I want to focus on are the green dots out in center field. Just a few weeks into the seasons, there are already a good number of frustratingly deep outs. Eventually, those balls will leave the yard, whether it be because of warmer temperatures or because he just places the ball slightly better.
Watching the Red Sox on a nightly basis has been incredibly frustrating lately. The offense just can’t string together any hits. A big part of that problem is their big slugger in the middle of the lineup hasn’t been able to get anything going. The good news is Ramirez is hitting the ball well and hitting the ball in the air. He’s just hitting it in the wrong spots too often. Everything points to him turning things around quickly.