The Red Sox are in the midst (or, hopefully, coming off) a horrendous stretch of baseball. Most of August has been great for Boston, but this last week or so has been brutal to watch. Much of this little stretch has been marked by awful pitching burying the team early in the game, but the latest chapter on Sunday was headlined by a poor performance from the lineup. Obviously, that has been a theme all year and, more often than not, when the team is struggling it’s because they can’t score runs. The group has certainly had some hot streaks this year, but many times they’ve been cancelled out by unfathomable cold streaks. When they go through one of these stretches, it’s bad enough that you can’t simply blame one player. Multiple guys combine to produce this kind of stretch. That being said, there is one hitter whose struggles are starting to stand out and he’s been struggling for more than just this recent stretch of bad baseball.
I speak, of course, of Hanley Ramirez, the man in the headline and also that big ol’ photo at the top of the post. The designated hitter/first baseman was the biggest hope to come close to replacing David Ortiz’ power in the lineup, but it’s been a largely disappointing year for Ramirez. There have been some hot streaks and it’s probably more accurate to describe his season as a rollercoaster, but the bad has outweighed the good. This past month has been particularly bad, and while most of the month he’s been overshadowed by the rest of the team’s strong performance, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore how poorly he’s performing.
Things have gotten so bad that many are starting to call for Ramirez to be moved down from the cleanup spot in the lineup. Honestly, it’s hard to argue with them. We saw on Sunday what can happen when you have a slumping hitter in such an important spot, with weak outs being hit in important situations. The strange thing about Ramirez, though, is that the deeper numbers don’t really suggest that he should be struggling like this.
On the surface, it’s impossible to argue that he’s been anything but bad in August. In 81 plate appearances this month, the slugger is hitting just .200/.309/.357 for a 65 wRC+, meaning he’s been 35 percent worse than the league-average hitter. In terms of plate discipline, it’s been a strange month, as he’s striking out much more than he has at any other point this year while also walking at a well-above-average rate. The strikeouts are a bit concerning to be sure, but it’s what’s happening on balls in play that is particularly strange for Ramirez.
On the whole, it’s been a pretty lousy season for Ramirez on balls in play, but August has been worse than most months. He has a .255 batting average on balls in play this month, a mark that is worse than any other calendar month this year besides June. Furthermore, he’s combining that with a lackluster amount of power, as his .157 Isolated Power this month is a big dropoff after he’d gotten his power stroke back in June and July.
All of this would suggest a hitter who is making consistently weak contact, right? Just looking at the BABIP and ISO, as well as my own recollection from watching the games, I was expecting to see a lot of ground balls, pop ups and overall weak contact. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, Ramirez has been making contact that doesn’t really match the results. He’s hitting more line drives than any other point this season and he’s keeping the ball off the ground at a high rate. On top of that, his hard-hit rate is as high as it’s been since the beginning of the season and he’s using the entire field. These numbers don’t really mesh with what we’ve been watching, to be sure.
There is one change that I have found that helps explain some of the futility at the plate in his approach at the plate. Pitchers aren’t really approaching him differently, but Ramirez is having a tough time laying off tough pitches to hit. He simply can’t stop himself from swinging at offspeed pitches.
He’s not swinging through these pitches at a higher rate than before, but it goes without saying that it’s harder to hit the ball with authority against offspeed pitches than it is fastballs. Going along with this theme, he is swinging at harder pitches on which to do damage. As you can see in the side-by-side comparison below — comparing his pre-August swing rates to his August swing rates — Ramirez having a harder time laying off the pitches in the bottom of the zone and below it.
In the end, I’m not really sure what to think of Ramirez right now. On the one hand, the batted ball data suggests he’s on the verge of figuring it out despite the uptick in strikeouts. On the other hand, he doesn’t look like a guy who is ready to turn things around. I probably wouldn’t mind moving him down in the lineup, even if it’s just for a few days to turn things around. The issue with this is that the Red Sox don’t really have an obvious player to take his spot in the cleanup spot. Moving Ramirez down likely means trusting the hot streaks of Mitch Moreland and/or Xander Bogaerts or putting a lot on Rafael Devers’ shoulders. It’s not something I’m against, but there is risk involved. There’s also some talk about what to do about Ramirez’ vesting option coming up after next year, but to me that’s something to worry about in 2018. Right now, the focus is finishing 2017 as strongly as possible, and getting Ramirez’ bat going is a big part of that. The numbers are suggesting he should be better than he is, but if we’re being honest it’s hard to feel really good about that right now.