Hanley Ramirez

What Can the Red Sox Do with Hanley Ramirez?

Back in April, I wrote a piece about Hanley Ramirez and his suicidal batting helmet. With each gargantuan swing, Ramirez’s helmet leapt from the top of his head like a BASE jumper off a cliff side. It was as if the helmet thought, “Gotta protect his head, protect his head, protect his head… [swings] SCREW THIS! [jumps]” Sometimes it was the exclamation mark on a huge home run, sometimes it looked like he missed so badly a piece of his clothing flew off. Either way, in conjunction with his early season batting prowess, this was a promising development in a promising Red Sox season.

Two months later, the Red Sox find themselves in unexpected places in regards to both their season and their newest slugger. Ramirez’s hitting, unlike most of the rest of the team’s production, has been mostly good. There is even reason to think maybe Ramirez can improve. The home runs have been there as 15 through June is a strong pace. But just five doubles? In Fenway Park? Really? Most frighteningly the walks haven’t showed up yet either, as Ramirez is posting a sub-Sandoval-esque walk rate of 5.9 percent. But for the most part we’re quibbling about a good and productive hitter who figures to be so for the near future, at minimum.

Everywhere else, though? Yikes. Mostly the problem has been Ramirez’s horrendous defense, and I don’t think horrendous is overstating the problem. Typically it’s difficult to use the advanced defensive metrics for small samples, and often even for larger samples. Left field in Fenway Park can also cause the numbers fits due to its odd shape and small size. But based on what I’ve seen, you can throw all those caveats out the window without fear of doing Hanley any kind of injustice.

Now a warning: this is the time of the article when I start to quote Hanley’s defensive numbers, so young children, those with heart conditions, and senior citizens should turn away from the screen until the conclusion of the following paragraph.

Just in case some of you are still looking, we’ll start with our numbers here at BP. Ramirez’s FRAA is -5.8. What I’m doing here is easing you in. You have just put your toe into the boiling caldron of sewage that is Hanley Ramirez’s defense. Now it gets real, because Baseball Reference is going to bring the pain! They have Ramirez’s defense at -1.9 WAR, meaning his glove has cost the Red Sox about two games so far this season. That’s two games in just three months! FanGraphs more or less agrees. They have him at -14.4 runs, so just one and a half games have been lost due to Ramirez’s defense. Not quite as awful, but, to be clear, still very, very awful. By the way, all of the above isn’t to say the advanced metrics are right about him, it’s to say that if they’re not, they’ve accidentally made him look better than he is.

So the funny thing about this is nothing. Nothing at all is funny about this. Ramirez has been stupendous if the goal is to be the opposite of good, which it isn’t, but let’s try to be nice.

If there is good news it’s that, to my eyes, Ramirez hasn’t been quite as bad recently. He’s still not good, definitely not good at all, but if he’s hitting we can live with not good. Remember Jonny Gomes? Remember Manny Ramirez? Somewhere in between those two lies Hanley’s offense and if he can play a Gomesian defense or even an adorably clumsy Mannyish kind of defense we’ll all put a checkmark next to “Hanley’s Defense” and go about the business of guessing how Ben Cherington is going to fix the other 75 percent of the Red Sox roster. So maybe that’s happening. Maybe Hanley Ramirez is improving. But if not? Well… yikes.

If Hanley Ramirez is going to continue to be the worst defensive player in baseball, the Red Sox will need to find somewhere else to play him.

That’s where the real problem comes in. The sad fact is even if Hanley was a Gold Glove fielder in left, the Red Sox would probably still be in the AL East basement. The difference between where the Red Sox are now and where we’d like them to be isn’t a not-awful defensive left fielder. So 2015 is done. The issue now is what happens in 2016 if Hanley is really this bad? And what happens after that? If Hanley Ramirez is going to continue to be the worst defensive player in baseball, the Red Sox will need to find somewhere else to play him.

This is where things get complicated. Most teams would grit their teeth, mumble something about a $20 million offense-only player, and shift him permanently to DH. The Red Sox aren’t most teams though. David Ortiz is the Red Sox DH and he’ll be the Red Sox DH into 2016 and maybe even beyond that. What’s more, there’s zero chance Ortiz shifts to any other position as long as he remains on the team. To paraphrase a person, these are known knowns. This means DH is out, at least for the near future. The signing of Pablo Sandoval to a five-year contract has blocked Ramirez from returning to the left side of the diamond, as nobody not on at least six types of hallucinogens would seriously suggest the Red Sox move Ramirez back to shortstop.

If Ramirez can’t play left he sure as heck can’t play center or right. The only position left is first base. I’ve heard a number of people suggest moving Ramirez to first base, some as soon as this year. This makes some sense as the Red Sox, given their current place in the standings, may trade Mike Napoli closer to the trade deadline if they can find anyone to take him. What’s more, there aren’t any first base-type sluggers moving up through the minor leagues who Ramirez would block. Travis Shaw is a nice player but he’s not the kind of guy you play over Hanley Ramirez. That lets the Red Sox put someone capable in left field, helps ease the glut of outfielders, and leaves DH for Ortiz as long as he is capable.

So that sounds like it could work, except for one thing: it’s a terrible idea. A left fielder’s ability to ruin a game is far more limited than a first baseman’s. That’s because first baseman touch the ball far more than left fielders. Left fielders see the ball when it’s hit to left field. First basemen see the ball when it’s hit just about anywhere in the infield and even other times as well. Sometimes they even have to field it themselves! Prior to Thursday’s game, Hanley Ramirez had played 480.2 innings this season and touched the ball 86 times. Also prior to Thursday, Mike Napoli, playing first base, played 543 innings and touched the ball 574 times. Do you really want to take the worst defensive player in baseball and put him at a position where he has to play the ball roughly 600 percent more often than he does currently?

So if first base isn’t an option, and neither is the rest of the infield or the outfield or DH… you see the problem here. The Red Sox are on the hook to Ramirez for another three years and $66 million at minimum after this season. He needs be able to play defense next season or the Red Sox front office is going to have to pay his way out of town. Hopefully he can learn. Hopefully he can get better.

Three months into the season Boston is already playing for next year. If Ramirez can improve defensively that would be cold comfort, but some comfort is better than none at all.

Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports Images

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