A Happy, Healthy Hanley Ramirez?

Hanley Ramirez hit 23 home runs “with one arm” in 2017.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

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.

We hoped you liked reading A Happy, Healthy Hanley Ramirez? by Jay Jaffe!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




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.

newest oldest most voted
Kevin
Member
Member
Kevin

Can’t imagine any scenario in which the Sox allow Ramirez to reach that 497 PA threshold – that $22M would be much better served elsewhere on the roster, especially with Kimberl hitting free agency after this season.

Les Vegetables
Member
Les Vegetables

I keep reading this take but I don’t fully agree. If (and it’s a big if) the Red Sox believe Hanley is healthy and can hit like he did in 2016 (~130 wRC+), I would be surprised if his playing time is limited. He probably won’t have as much rope as other players do to go through dry spells, but the primary mandate is to field the best team – this isn’t a rebuilding year for the Red Sox, they are expecting to compete for a WS – and a healthy, good-hitting Hanley makes the 2017 Red Sox better than whatever Mitch Moreland brings.

Hell, Hanley was terrible last year and the Red Sox *still* decided to give him 550 plate appearances, and every plate appearance he had last year counted toward that vesting option as well. I think it would have been pretty easy for the Red Sox to have made Hanley have that shoulder surgery during the season last year, putting him on the DL for the majority of the year. But they instead chose to run him out there almost every day because they were trying to compete for a division and WS.

johansantana17
Member
johansantana17

They didn’t have JD Martinez last year

Les Vegetables
Member
Les Vegetables

True they didn’t, but I still think the overall goal of winning a WS matters more than anything else. Imagine for a second the Red Sox and Yankees are neck and neck for the division and Hanley is hitting well. Do you really think John Henry would prefer to bench him in an effort to save $22 million in 2019, or do everything they can to win the division and avoid the wildcard game?

All I’m saying is I can pretty easily see a scenario where Hanley plays a lot and his option vests, whereas it seems to be a foregone conclusion among fans that the Red Sox will do everything they can to avoid this, which I don’t quite agree with.

rounders
Member
rounders

It’s important that Boston clears his money off their books. Chances are Ramirez will make it easy for them. It they’d had the option to not renew his contract this year he’d already be gone.

ND12
Member
ND12

Sure, but I think they’ll have a pretty good idea around the ~250 PA mark whether or not they’ll play him enough to get to 497. And my guess is at that point the clear answer will be “no”.

scooter262
Member
Member
scooter262

Agreed. I think it’s a real long shot for Hanley to vest his option. There might be a marginal gain this season by letting Hanley get enough playing time—if, of course he’s hitting well. But, as Kevin said, that $22 million can be better spent elsewhere.

joshua.barron1
Member
joshua.barron1

I’ve listened to this discussion a lot in Boston sports talk radio. I think we are all missing the point that he would have to be healthy for five months out of the year to rack up that many plate appearances. He has a lengthy injury history and no longer is the primary DH. 3 out of the past 7 seasons he didn’t meet the 497 mark, regardless of performance, and 2 more he was still within 50 of that number (it’s not like he consistently gets 700 PA yearly and his situation will have to actively be managed).

I think it’s a non-issue as far as the Red Sox brass is concerned. If he’s healthy and performs up to 2016 standards but you really don’t want him for 2019, eat half the contract and trade him for a bag of balls. Having a 2 or 3 win player would more than justify the $10-$15mm sunk cost.