It’s not a stretch to say that Hanley Ramirez’s four-year, $88 million contract with the Red Sox hasn’t worked out well through its first three years. He’s moved off of shortstop to unfamiliar positions at which he’s struggled, namely left field (2015) and first base (2016). He’s battled injuries — particularly problems with both shoulders — to the point of averaging just 128 games per year. And in two of his three seasons, he’s finished with a sub-zero WAR (-1.7 in 2015, -0.4 last year). With the addition of J.D. Martinez to the crowded Boston roster, he stands to lose playing time. Even so, his chipper disposition in this Boston Herald piece earlier this week was eye-catching, even if it marks the 34-year-old slugger’s entry into the “Best Shape of His Life” genre.
After hitting just .242/.320/.429 with 23 homers and a 93 wRC+ last year, Ramirez underwent surgery to debride his left shoulder (the one that required season-ending surgery in 2011) in November. He spent the winter working out with Martinez in Miami, reported to camp (allegedly) 15 pounds lighter thanks to a new diet and fitness regimen, and has been playing first base in Grapefruit League games with no reported difficulties. Via the Herald’s Mike Silverman, Ramirez has been telling reporters he’ll go 30-30 this year — 30 homers and 30 steals, a pairing he achieved in 2008 after missing by one homer the year before. It certainly seems unlikely given that he stole just one base last year and has needed the past four seasons to total exactly 30.
Nobody’s about to bet on that. The big question is how much playing time he’ll get under new manager Alex Cora, who will have his hands full. With an outfield of 23-year-old Andrew Benintendi in left, 28-year-old Jackie Bradley in center, and 25-year-old Mookie Betts in right — a defensively adept group that combined for 48 DRS and 26 UZR last year — it’s not like it makes a ton of sense to shoehorn Martinez (-8 UZR in rightfield last year, -5.8 per 150 games in the two corners career-wise) into an outfield corner instead of DH-ing him. Perhaps the lefty-swinging Benintendi’s struggles against same-side pitching (60 wRC+ in 140 career PA) provide an opening, albeit at the risk of impeding the younger player’s development and forcing Martinez to play the Green Monster. The Red Sox have discussed what amounts to a home-road platoon with Martinez-Bradley-Betts at Fenway and Benintendi-Betts-Martinez elsewhere, but that’s a lot of time riding pine for Bradley as well as Benintendi, who just a year ago was touted as a Rookie of the Year candidate.
If Martinez is DH-ing, that means Ramirez will go back to first base, where he’s been DH-caliber in 1,291 innings (-4.8 UZR/150). Mitch Moreland, whom the team retained via a two-year, $13 million deal after he hit free agency, is obviously the better fielder, having recorded a 5.8 UZR per 150 games for his career. He was a slightly more productive hitter than Ramirez last year, too — batting .246/.326/.443/98 wRC+ — but that’s subpar production for a first baseman. Even with the good glovework, Moreland was worth just 0.9 WAR in 576 PA. A healthy Ramirez should better that, because as he said last month, “Literally I was hitting with one arm last year and I hit 23 [homers].”
Due in part to his shoulder woes, which included a bout of right shoulder soreness early in the season, Ramirez set career worsts with an 11.6% swinging-strike rate and a 75.6% contact rate. He particularly struggled to make contact with pitches at the bottom of the strike zone, something that wasn’t so much of a problem in 2016, when he hit .286/.361/.505 with 30 homers and 126 wRC+ (a dead ringer for his career line). The older season is on the left.
When he did make make contact, Ramirez did hit the ball with some authority last year according to a variety of metrics. His average exit velocity of 88.4 mph, while down from 90.3 mph in 2016, still ranked 107th out of 334 hitters with at least 150 batted-ball events. His 35.3% hard-hit rate, while down from 37.2% in 2016, ranked 30th out of 78 qualified AL hitters, a few hair below Betts’ 35.7%. Though his soft-hit rate of 20.0% was tied for 14th among the same group, it too was down from 2016 (22.6%). His 1.13 GB/FB ratio, while not in the realm of the launch-angle kings, was his best since 2013, and down from 1.47 in 2016. That he did wind up with a .272 BABIP, the 16th lowest of AL qualifiers, may owe something to his subpar speed. In Statcast’s newish Sprint Speed metric, his top speed of 26.6 feet per second ranked 143rd out of 193 players with at least 50 max-effort events.
So yeah, maybe not 30 stolen bases. But if the rest of Ramirez’s offensive game comes back, it will be interesting to see how Cora and the Sox handle it. With 497 plate appearances, Ramirez would reach a two-year total of 1,050, vesting a $22 million option for 2019 so long as he passes a physical at the end of the season. The Red Sox, who ranked last in the league in homers last year (168) for the first time since 1930, could use the firepower; after all, that’s why they signed Martinez. But if Ramirez hits only to his 2015 or 2017 levels, it won’t be tough to justify benching him and simplifying what could otherwise be one of Cora’s bigger headaches. Stay tuned.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.