There is a lot of consternation around the Red Sox right now, which on the surface is pretty wild considering they have the most wins in baseball. That seems like a thing fans would like, but the current narrative around the team does not reflect that. Of course, that’s not to say they are perfect and it should be all puppies and rainbows around the club. There are real issues here, and really if anyone is on one extreme or the other with this team (or really any team) at this point in the year they are probably in the wrong. Perhaps the biggest issue is in the lineup, and specifically the utter lack of production from the bottom of the unit. Essentially, the Red Sox are winning right now with just about a half-lineup, and it’s tough to sustain that. They need some help down there.
However, that’s not what I’m talking about today. While the top half of the lineup has been largely incredible, it certainly hasn’t been perfect. Struggles are more easily hidden up there amid so many red-hot bats, but they are still happening. Specifically, Hanley Ramirez hasn’t really been a majorly impactful bat over the last few weeks, and it’s becoming more noticeable by the day.
Any conversation around Ramirez has to include what he did at the beginning of the season, because he was a massive part of the lineup. To put it simply, there is no way the Red Sox go on that early-season run and put themselves in such an enviable position without Ramirez mashing in the middle of the lineup. Over the first month of the season, the slugger was hitting .330/.400/.474 for a 137 wRC+ that made him 37 percent better than the league-average hitter. Things....well, they haven’t been so good since the calendar flipped over to May.
Since we’ve started this new month (Arbitrary End Points Alert and all that), the line has dropped significantly. Since the beginning of May Ramirez is hitting just .196/.233/.393 for a wRC+ of 60, meaning he’s been 40 percent worse than league-average. That’s not the worst bat in the Red Sox lineup — which says what you need to know about some of the production from the bottom of that group — but he’s in an important spot in the lineup and you need better production. Of course, this has come over only 60 plate appearances, so the sample size needs to be taken into account. That being said, even if it’s not all sustainable (and it’s not) there are some troubling trends on which to keep an eye.
Digging a little bit deeper, it’s a little interesting to see where things differ between his April and May. It seemed like, over the first month of the season, Ramirez was hitting big home run after big home run. However, the power really wasn’t all that impressive in April and Ramirez was instead getting by because of a .392 batting average on balls in play to go with strong plate discipline. That BABIP, while high, was not all luck as the veteran was regularly smoking the ball, using the whole field and hitting it on a line. That’s a recipe for a lot of hits. In May, his BABIP has cratered to just .182, but his power is up to a .196 Isolated Power, 52 points higher than April. He’s also walking a lot less this month, but making more contact. It’s...it’s a strange comparison.
The success on balls in play is the biggest driver between both Ramirez’ early-season hot streak and his recent struggles. It’s easy to look at this as the BABIP correcting itself and thinking that it will simply even out soon enough and we’ll get some normal performance. That very well could be the case, but it’s really not that simple. Ramirez has functionally become a different hitter of late, and it’s not nearly as productive. I mentioned before that Ramirez had been hitting a lot of line drives in April, but in May he has a line drive rate of just 6.4 percent according to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics. That’s an 18-point drop and a rate that is always going to lead to a low BABIP. Instead of line drives, most of those balls have turned into grounders, which was a big problem for Ramirez last year. Really, any time he’s starting to scuffle at the plate it turns into ground balls. Below is a graph showing every set of five games from the season (so, games 1-5, games 2-6, games 3-7, etc) and how Ramirez’ ground ball rate has looked through that time. The trend is not encouraging.
After a lot of grounders at the very beginning of the year, Ramirez spent most of April around or below the 40 percent mark. That is the sweet spot for him as he can use his incredible strength and bat-to-ball ability to do real damage with the ball in the air that often. Around the 20-game mark, he reached 50 percent, and he hasn’t been able to shake that trend for very long. In fact, much of the time since that 20th game he’s been up around or above 60 percent. He’s still running into some home runs here and there, but he’s not getting hits and eventually the power is going to come down if he keeps hitting the ball on the ground like this.
There are other issues with Ramirez right now — he’s not walking nearly as much and he’s swinging a bit more at pitches out of the zone — but the batted ball profile is the most troubling. The Red Sox are at their best when Ramirez is mashing in the middle of the lineup, knocking in Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi and setting things up for J.D. Martinez. Right now, he’s too often hitting double play balls that threaten to kill rallies, and last night we saw Benintendi running a lot with Ramirez at the plate to avoid those double plays. It’s too early to talk about major changes here — as I mentioned, this is only a 60-plate appearance sample — but at some point the Red Sox have to at least move Ramirez down and let someone like Mitch Moreland get some chances in the middle of the lineup. For now, though, we just have to hope Ramirez can get that swing back and get the ball in the air to sustain rallies rather than threaten to kill them.