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Hanley Ramirez is going to get better....right?

Is improvement on the way for Boston’s designated hitter?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Ed.’s Note: This post was written before Monday’s game in Kansas City. Perhaps Hanley Ramirez went 5-5 with five home runs. Perhaps he went 0-5 with 5 Ks. Perhaps he entered on a spaceship a la Michael Jordan in Space Jam. There is no way for me to know, as you are reading this in the future. Therefore, the numbers that follow do not reflect the events from Monday evening.

For all of the success the Red Sox have had this year — and make no mistake, there has been more good than bad in 2017 for this team — the offense has been incredible frustrating at times. While the group was always going to take a step back after the loss of David Ortiz, there is no excuse for the periods of inactivity that the lineup has gone through this season. With that being said, for the most part the players they expect production from have had their moments, even if they’ve been inconsistent. Besides the black hole at third base and the recent downturn behind the plate, there isn’t too much to be worried about offensively. That is, except for Hanley Ramirez.

Ramirez, of course, took over Ortiz’ position and was expected to take over his role as the power hitter in the middle of the lineup, albeit to a lesser extent. Instead, he’s struggled to get any positive momentum going at any point this season. Through his first 236 plate appearances in 2017, Ramirez is hitting just .240/.343/.402 for a below-average 95 wRC+. Obviously, that is not great, but it’s particularly discouraging for someone who has essentially spent the entire season as the team’s designated hitter. Things have only gotten worse recently, too, as he’s hit just .192/.288/.385 for a 66 wRC+ (34 percent worse than the league-average hitter) in the month of June. He’s not really this bad, right? Things are going to turn around?

Let’s start with the reasons to believe that yes, Ramirez is going to be much better as the season goes on. Looking at his numbers, it’s clear that the issue for Ramirez is what’s happening once the ball is put into play. He’s shown off strong plate discipline this season, with a typical above-average strikeout rate and a 12 percent walk rate that would rate as the second best in his major-league career. Instead, he’s suffering from a .267 batting average on balls in play that would be the second worst of his career after 2015. He also only has an Isolated Power of .162, which would be the second worst of his career as well.

When both your BABIP and ISO are subpar, the expectation is that you are struggling to make good contact. However, judging by Ramirez’ batted ball profile on Fangraphs, that hasn’t been the case. In fact, he’s hitting the ball in just about the same way he did last season. So far this season, his hard-hit and line drive rates are almost identical to his 2016 rates and he’s hitting a few more fly balls to make up for fewer ground balls. That doesn’t seem like it should lead to such drastically worse numbers.

Speaking of last season, the final piece of good news is that we’ve seen Ramirez turn it around from these kind of struggles before. By the middle of June last season, the former Marlins and Dodgers star was at his lowest point of the season. It’s hard to remember at this point, but at this point in 2016 it looked like it was going to be a repeat performance for Ramirez after his horrid 2015. Instead, he was able to turn it around and start hitting the ball with authority on a regular basis late in the year. That gives some hope it can happen again.

So, that’s the good news. Unfortunately, it’s not all positive. To start off with the bad news, I’ll counter the point made about him turning it around last season. While that was great, the aforementioned 2015 didn’t go quite the same way. That season got off to a similarly discouraging start, and he wasn’t able to turn it around. Furthermore, while 2016 might make more sense to use as a template for 2017 since it’s more recent, 2015 might make more sense when you add in a little bit of context. Specifically, Ramirez has been dealing with shoulder pain that’s kept him out of the field for most of the year, and one would have to assume that’s affecting him at the plate as well. If you recall, he also suffered from a shoulder injury in that disappointing 2015. That’s a difficult ailment to recover from as a hitter, and there’s some chance he won’t be able to improve all year because of it.

On top of that, this isn’t the same kind of struggle that Ramirez has gone through at other points in his Red Sox career. Prior to this season, when he hasn’t hit since coming to Boston it’s because he’s been pounding the ball into the ground. That hasn’t been the case this year, as I discussed above. Instead, the biggest issue I can see with the way he’s hitting the ball is that he is too pull happy. Now, this does get into the ground ball problems, too, since when Ramirez pulls the ball he tends to hit it on the ground. This season, over 60 percent of his batted balls to the pull side have been grounders. For all you visual thinkers out there, here is his spray chart for the season.

That is not what the ideal version of Hanley Ramirez looks like. When he is at his best, he is using the whole field, and the middle of the field in particular. There’s a big white space in left-center field, and that’s where his power should be. When I picture Hanley Ramirez at his best, I picture him hitting mammoth shots right where the Green Monster meets the center field seats. So far in 2017, that’s the one spot where he’s not hitting the ball.

Unlike some other slumping Red Sox players early in the year with whom it was clear things would turn around, I’m really not sure what to expect from Ramirez moving forward. On the one hand, he is hitting the ball well and we’ve seen him recover from this kind of slump before. On the other hand, the shoulder is clearly affecting him, and that kind of injury can last all year. I’m not going to tell you one way or the other on this one. Instead, I’d just say look at where he’s hitting the ball. If Ramirez starts using the whole field with authority again, he just might be about to break out of this slump.