Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
Mistakes happen. So do bad years. That applies to baseball as well as life. But few players’ seasons have made a team’s decision look worse than Hanley Ramirez’s did for the Red Sox in 2015. The Sox signed Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million contract last offseason to add pop to a lineup that struggled to produce the year before, and to help spark a franchise coming off a last-place finish. It looked like a nice reunion of sorts. Ramirez came up through the Red Sox’s system before being traded to the Marlins as part of the Josh Beckett deal. Nine years later he was returning as an everyday contributor in Boston. He would play left field for the first time in his career. The learning curve would be steep, but his bat would good enough to mask those defensive deficiencies while he adjusted.
Or so went the theory, but this was not a happy homecoming. Instead it was a complete disaster that epitomized all that went wrong for the Red Sox in 2015. Ramirez was inconsistent at the plate, incompetent in left field and often looked disinterested. Any day the Sox didn’t play him was a good one. And they had plenty of chances to sit him, as he battled injuries throughout the season. His defense got so bad at one point that they opted to play David Ortiz at first base so Ramirez could DH.
Very little went as planned for Ramirez and the Red Sox. The slugger took Boston on a roller coaster ride that kept going downward as the season progressed, and may not be done dropping just yet.
What Went Right
I know what you’re thinking — absolutely nothing. That’s because it’s easy to forget how good Ramirez was over the first month of the season. Ramirez, in fact, was one of the best hitters in baseball in April. He kicked off his second Red Sox stint with a two-home run (including a grand slam) Opening Day, and after 21 games was tied for the major-league lead in home runs (10), was fourth in ISO (.366) and posted a .413 wOBA.
Ramirez was especially successful against pitches on the middle-to-inner half of the plate, pulling eight of his 10 April homers to left field. His aggressive approach worked because he was seeing the pitches he wanted, particularly fastballs and inside breaking balls. The results spoke for themselves. The Red Sox could be patient with his glove if he was going to hit like that.
That wasn’t the last of the good Ramirez, either. He had just 77 plate appearances in June, but slashed .338/.377/.479. Then on July 5 he provided his best highlight of the season, golfing a low changeup from Astros lefty Tony Sipp over the left field wall with a one-handed swing to lead the Red Sox to a comeback win.
That home run was his fifth in a 10-game span, showing just how dangerous he can be at times with his bat.
But certainly not all the time.
What Went Wrong
Where to begin?
The most obvious place is with the failed experiment in left field. That, above all else, was Ramirez’s biggest downfall.
Ramirez was a career shortstop. There was bound to be an adjustment transitioning from the infield to left field, especially in a park as unique as Fenway where a hit off the wall can go any which way at any given moment, and can disrupt a fielder when trying to catch a fly ball. It’s not easy.
But Ramirez never got it. It wasn’t just Fenway Park that gave him trouble, it was all outfields. He couldn’t read a fly ball or play a one-hopper off the wall, and made routine catches look difficult. Couple those lack of fundamentals with lackluster effort and it was a disaster waiting to happen. Really, it was laughable. He was the worst statistical outfielder in baseball last season, posting a dreadful -19 DRS and -31.9 UZR/150. The Red Sox decided they had seen enough in August, announcing he would switch to first base next season.
Don’t believe it was that bad? Cue the montage!
RIP Hanley Ramirez outfield defense. You are gone, but never forgotten. #RedSox pic.twitter.com/nPXsAtkUSh
— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) September 1, 2015
Ramirez wasn’t any better offensively. He hit .238 with nine home runs in the 84 games following his stellar April, finishing with a .252 true average for the year. He walked at the lowest rate of his career (4.9 percent BB%) and struck out at his highest rate in three years (16.5 percent K%), the result of an aggressive approach that left him whiffing at pitches out of the zone (and losing his helmet in the process — that happened frequently) and falling behind early in counts. Ramirez was at his worst against lefties, posting a .230/.276/.434 slash line, a .241 BABIP and a 21.1 percent K%.
It’s hard to give Ramirez the benefit of the doubt, but injuries may explain at least part of why his offensive production dwindled after April. He strained his left shoulder in May when he crashed into a wall in foul territory, bruised his left hand in June after being hit by a line drive and later in the season injured his right shoulder on a throw from left field. Those injuries kept him out of 57 games, including all of September.
Outlook for 2016
In a perfect world, Ramirez won’t play for the Red Sox in 2016. He’s a player who’s painful to watch and owed a lot of money over the next three years. But this is not a perfect world. It’s unlikely there will be a buyer for his services. That means he’ll be the Red Sox’s starting first baseman next season.
Here’s the good news: it can’t get any worse than it did in left last season. The bad news is it probably won’t be much better. Ramirez was a below-average shortstop before switching positions with the Red Sox, so the expectation is he’ll be a subpar first baseman as well.
There is reason for hope in the batter’s box, however. Last season was a statistical anomaly at the plate, an outlier in what has been a pretty good offensive run that includes a career .371 wOBA. To expect him to hit like he did in April for an entire season is unrealistic, but when healthy his numbers from May on shouldn’t be the norm either.
Ramirez will be 32 next season, well past his prime. It’s too late for him to turn it all around, but he can be better. The Red Sox asked him to lose weight in the offseason, and it appears that’s off to a good start. A healthy Ramirez can be productive. Sure, his defense may still be atrocious, but if he can limit the damage in the field and get back to hitting the way he did before last season, then there’s reason to believe he can be a serviceable player in 2016 and — more likely than not — take over at DH after David Ortiz retires.
Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images