When I initially penned this article (prior to Friday’s game), Hanley Ramirez had a line of .245/.324/.434/.758. That was well below his performance last year (1.040 OPS), and paired with his poor defense at shortstop and nagging injuries, concern about his production from fans and media has been a consistent topic of interest.
My own concern led me to search for answers, and in the meantime, Hanley may have fortunately already begun to snap out of it, as he’s gone 4-for-6 with a double and two homers in the last two games, raising his OPS to .819 and thus ruining any chance of him making me look like an instant genius. But my general point still remains: there’s reason to be hopeful about Hanley Ramirez’s offense going forward.
Aside from just looking at his 2013 to 2014 OPS and what have you, how about comparing the peripherals and batted ball distributions and seeing whether or not he’s actually been struggling?
Looking at the peripherals, they’re extremely similar in nature. Only the BABIP ends up not matching, and while that makes sense because Hanley was always going to come back down to Earth from last year, his 2013 batted ball profile still projected him for a BABIP around the .315 to .325 range. His .277 this year is obviously not anywhere near that, and it shows that a lot of the concern was simply the ball not bouncing Hanley’s way. If a few more of his grounders and liners find holes, then he’d have been hitting .280 instead of .240 and less people would be asking what’s wrong with his bat.
Luck doesn’t explain everything though, as his batted ball distance has come down to 290 feet from 309 feet last year. That fall reflects on his power and has led to his lower rate of homers thus far.
So what’s been the problem there? His ability to square up fastballs.
Since Hanley became a regular in 2006, his run value production against fastballs has never dipped into the negatives until 2014, where he now sits at -5.0. Even including his struggles in 2011/2012 on his way back from labrum surgery, 2014 still easily marks the worst he’s ever produced against fastballs. In fact, the only reason his power numbers have been adequate is because he was somehow able to slug a MLB leading .641 against off-speed pitches. Still, in the long run, not being able to hit the fastball is a bad sign.
The two possibilities for his struggles with fastballs are: 1) his timing is off 2) his bat speed has slowed, whether due to age or injury.
The second option would be a major problem, but after watching his plate appearances this year, Hanley’s issue isn’t that he can’t get around on quality fastballs, but rather that he’s frequently off-balance and either behind or ahead of them. I feel confident in that diagnosis, but it’s a difficult thing to represent for you visually. Fortunately, you won’t have to just take my word for it, as we can take the speed off the bat on Hanley’s homers as more objective evidence. The speed off the bat topped out at 117 mph and averaged 107 mph last year, while this year Hanley’s top is 114 mph with the same 107 mph average. So Hanley can still hit the ball hard when he squares it up, it’s just a matter of frequency at this point.
All that brings us back around to the timing issue and why I think Hanley will be alright. Unlike hitters such as Matt Kemp, who are more mechanical dependent, guys like Hanley are all about rhythm and timing, which Hanley himself was kind enough to explain recently.
“Seriously, I don’t know what I’m doing at the plate,” Ramirez said. “I just see the ball, hit the ball. I’ve changed my stance a million times. I make adjustments to how they pitch me. … Whatever I find that day that makes my hands work.”
What I found while watching his plate appearances is that the timing of the footstrike after his leg kick would be off a bit. So instead of being fluid where his front foot hits and he activates his hips in one motion, sometimes he would be early and end up lunging for balls, while sometimes he would have to rush his upper body to compensate for his lower half being late. Either way, he wasn’t in rhythm against fastballs, and that would result in him missing pitches that he would usually hammer or getting into counts where he couldn’t be as aggressive.
In other words, the good news is that there’s no major issue here besides Hanley having to get his timing back in sync. The bad news? There’s no obvious fix besides waiting for it to happen and having faith in his instincts.
Fortunately though, given Hanley’s career success to date against fastballs and the rest of his peripherals not deviating much from his amazing 2013, there’s every reason to believe his offense will come around eventually as long as he can stay healthy. Sure, we’ll probably never see anything like that amazing run he put together in 2013 again, but Hanley should be able to produce a line that belongs in the middle of the order at some point. Whether the march to that point started two days ago, yesterday, or is sometime to come in the future, a career’s worth of evidence says to bet on Hanley eventually figuring out his battle against the hard stuff.