Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Hanley Ramirez.
The Question: Can we at least be cautiously optimistic about a Hanley Ramirez bounce-back?
We, and just about anyone who spends any amount of time talking about the Red Sox, have spent much of this winter discussing the potential and likelihood for Boston’s offense to outperform last year’s version. There are plenty of reasons for this. J.D. Martinez coming aboard and giving them a superstar quality bat gives them a weapon they didn’t have. Having Rafael Devers for a full season is just a little bit better than getting third base production better suited for a midlevel high school league. Young-yet-semi-established players like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi are expected to be better and more consistent than they were a year ago. That’s over half of the every day lineup expected to be major upgrades over last year’s lineup that still won a division. It’s also without even mentioning Hanley Ramirez, who was among the many Red Sox players to suffer through a down year. Are we a little too quick to write the three-time All-Star and four-time MVP vote-getter?
To be fair to those who are writing off the chances of Ramirez contributing in a meaningful way, he was pretty damn underwhelming last year. Over 553 plate appearances the full-time DH only managed to hit .242/.320/.429 for a 93 wRC+, meaning he was seven percent worse than the league-average hitter. Being even average as a designated hitter isn’t going to cut it. That performance was detrimental to the Red Sox offense and a big reason the group as a whole was so disappointing. Ramirez has been back in Boston for three years, and this was the second subpar season for him. Of course, after that rough 2015, he bounced back in 2016 in a big way. Why can’t he do it again?
There were a couple of things that went wrong for Ramirez last year, or at least that stood out among his performance. The first was that he struck out over 20 percent for the first time in his career. During his prime, the slugger was generally able to maintain a strikeout rate around 16 percent, which was really impressive for someone with his kind of power. His recent spike actually started in that strong 2016, though, when he struck out 19 percent of the time before upping the rate to 21 percent in 2017. On the one hand, 21 percent is still pretty much average in today’s environment and he showed two years ago that he can succeed with that kind of strikeout rate. On the other hand, it’s never good for contact rate to trend in this direction, particularly for a player on the wrong side of 30. Unsurprisingly, his swinging strike rate has increased over the last two years, and most of the change has come against fastballs. As you see in the graph below, his rate of whiffs per swing against hard pitches (as classified by Brooks Baseball) spiked in a huge way in 2016 and stayed up last year. Perhaps it’s injury related or a bit of a fluke, but at his age it’s fair to wonder if he’s lost a bit of bat speed.
It wasn’t just the contact rate that plagued Ramirez last year, though. Things didn’t go super well when he did make contact, either. When the 34-year-old has been good in recent years — say, since 2013 — he has posted big batting averages on balls in play to go with power all behind consistently scary-hard contact. Last year wasn’t terrible in terms of power as he hit 23 home runs with a .188 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), but it wasn’t up to his standards either. More important, his .272 BABIP was nearly 40 points lower than his 2016 mark and nearly 50 points lower than the 2014 season that got him his contract in Boston in the first place. The good news is there is some reason to be optimistic about a bounce-back here. Looking at his batted ball data compared to that in his successful years, not much has changed. He was hitting the ball in the air and hitting it hard, pulling the ball but not to a wildly extreme amount and hitting plenty of line drives. Batted ball data isn’t everything and it didn’t always feel so positive watching him, but the data does not match with the results. Whether that plays means he can get back to his old level in 2017 is no guarantee, but there’s at least more positivity here than there is with respect to his contact rate.
There’s also reason for optimism when you look for some context into the coming season. For one thing, Ramirez feels a lot more comfortable and upbeat this spring with Alex Cora as his manager. It’s entirely possible we’re all reading too much into this, but it’s hard to deny the vibes he’s been giving off this spring. Furthermore, the Red Sox are going to be trying to limit his plate appearances to a number less than 497, as that number will trigger a vesting option for 2019. While I think that will go out the window if he’s hitting up to his potential midway through the year, he’ll at least get started with limited playing time that should largely put him in good positions to succeed. There’s a chance that strategy leads to some early confidence that Ramirez can ride from there.
We’ve seen Ramirez bounce back from down seasons before, but he’s now in his mid-thirties and at this age there’s always a legitimate fear that every slump could be his last and that he will never snap out of it. His contact rate, particularly against fastballs, doesn’t bode well. On the other hand, there are contextual reasons to be optimistic and his batted ball data from last year suggests some bad luck. I find myself weirdly and almost uncomfortably confident in a Ramirez bounce-back, but it’s not hard for me to see the other side. I think we can all agree on one thing, though. This team, and baseball in general, is a lot more fun when Hanley Ramirez is hitting well and feeling himself. I need a little bit of that in my life in 2018.