Analysis

The Curious Career of Hanley Ramirez

The tale of Hanley Ramirez and his winding road of a professional career began in the same place in which it now resides, Boston. The year was 2005, and a 21-year-old Hanley Ramirez had been working his way through the Red Sox system for the previous five years, since signing as an international free agent in 2000. People forget that Hanley’s career started in Beantown, which is fair considering he made just two plate appearances for the team, late in the year. He came into the season as a consensus top ten prospect in all of baseball. The young Ramirez, featured a rare combo of blistering speed, patient plate discipline and solid power, all while being an above average defender at a premium position in the league, shortstop. His rise from prospect to all-star got a huge kickstart at the end of 2005 when we was the centrepiece of a trade to the Florida Marlins, which would net a solid return for the Sox in the form of 2003 (and later 2007) world champions, Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett.

A younger, smaller Hanley (Scott R. Anselmo/Wikimedia Commons)

In his debut season with the Marlins, Ramirez came storming out of the gate and never looked back. His 185 hits, 119 runs, and 51 stolen bases led all National League rookies and helped him cruise to Rookie of the Year honors over other future all-stars such as Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla, and Prince Fielder. Hanley had put himself on the map in his 2006 rookie campaign, as a speedster with a great eye for the ball, and someone with the potential to be a star in this league. Over the next few seasons, the pressure became more and more on Ramirez to guide this franchise back towards success. Following the 2007 season, Miguel Cabrera was traded by the Marlins to the Detroit Tigers. Many saw this as a changing of the guard in South Beach, with Hanley becoming the new face of the franchise. He signed a six-year extension worth 70 million dollars and earned every cent of it by going out to make his first all-star team and finishing near the top 10 in MVP voting in 2008 by reaching the 30 home run plateau for the first time. A 30 home run — 30 steal player is always a coveted asset in the league, and one such as Hanley, who hit .342 and was the runner-up for MVP in 2009, was going to be desired by many big market teams. However, through the next couple seasons, Ramirez’s body started to show the wear and tear of playing 150+ games every season. He failed to stay healthy at the end of 2010, and for the most part of 2011. The 2011 season saw him play just 92 games, and his statistics suffered as he struggled to a .243 batting average and just 10 home runs, before being shut down for shoulder surgery. The beginning of the end in Miami was the acquisition of Jose Reyes by the Marlins. This moved Hanley, at the time 28, over to third base, which was a highly publicized transition due to Ramirez’s displeasure with the move. This ultimately led to the all-star finally being traded back to a large market, this time Los Angeles, to compete for a World Series with the Dodgers.

Middle-aged Ramirez, then on the Dodgers (Keith Allison/Flickr)

Arriving in L.A., Hanley had struggled yet again, to the tune of hitting just .246 and getting on base at just a .322 clip (the lowest of his career to that point.) However, the incentive of a playoff race seemed to motivate Ramirez, who upped his average to .271 with the Dodgers while connecting on 10 home runs. A couple playoff appearances and a reinvigoration of play style resurrected Hanley’s career for the time being. However, he was no longer was the kid with wheels who stole 50 bases in back to back seasons, as he hasn’t even reached 20 since leaving Florida. He turned his focus back towards his plate discipline, which led to him hitting .345 and posting an absurd OPS of 1.040 in 2013. Despite the increase back to his statistics, his body continued to let him down, as he played just 86 games that season due to thumb, hamstring and rib injuries. After another injury-plagued season in 2014, both sides decided to quit on the experiment and let Ramirez test free agency for the first time in his career. It seemed to be a common feeling in the industry, that Ramirez would return to his original team of the Red Sox, but this time as a completely different player. When he originally was traded from Boston, Hanley was always viewed as a smaller guy, who was going to consistently hit for average and be a threat on the base-paths. However, when he returned to the Red Sox after nearly ten years around the league, he came as a newly moulded player. Hanley signed a four-year deal with a fifth-year option to return to Boston, on the plus side of 80 million dollars. Not only was Hanley coming here with a large lack of speed and clear defensive issues, he had been viewed as troublesome off the field due to character issues and a lack of accountability in his past.

The second stint in Boston didn’t begin well for Hanley (Keith Allison/Flickr)

Hanley Ramirez returned to Boston beginning in 2015, and with playoff hero Pablo Sandoval also signing from San Fransisco, they were supposed to support a young core in its pursuit to get back on track after a terrible 2014. Hanley’s days as a major league infielder had come and gone, as he was viewed as too much of a liability to play there. So the Red Sox ownership signed him with the intentions of throwing him in left field and hoping his bat was valuable enough to outweigh his defense and compliment his outgoing demeanor (similar to another Ramirez who played left field for Boston). This, unfortunately, was not the case, as Ramirez struggled to his worst season statistically of his career, and looked absolutely lost out in left field. Now let’s be clear, left field isn’t the hardest position on the field but it is also not the easiest, especially at Fenway. It took until June or July before Hanley realized how the bounces worked when a ball hit the Green Monster out in left, and even then it was still a task for him to hunt the ball down and get it into the right place. Hanley was a lost cause on the left side of the infield and was now proving to struggle just as much in left field. This led to games ending with a Ramirez strikeout, followed by boos from the crowd, just months into this experiment that once had so much hope for Hanley Ramirez. The team was forced to change something to make this work, as he is under contract for the next three seasons, and then 2016 became a year of optimism for him. He had clearly gained lots of muscle with the intentions of being a clean-up hitter and had been training to play first base. This new idea worked great, as Hanley drove in a career-high 111 runs and had finally reached that 30 home run plateau for the first time since his 30–30 season in 2008. Not only was his bat back, but he looked very comfortable at first base. He reacted the right ways to all the different scenarios with a ball in play, looked very effective in his scooping abilities on errant throws, and for the first time since his all-star days in Florida, it appeared as if Hanley as actually enjoying the game again. No, he wasn’t the prominent base stealer or batting champ he once was, but he was the clean-up hitter he had strived to be, and he had converted himself into a plus-defender. Although injuries had their way with Hanley again in 2017 and he struggled offensively, for the most part, he was still the Sox best hitter in the ALDS against Houston, which led to more optimism going into possibly his final year in Boston.

A more recent Ramirez, appearing much happier and getting back to enjoying the game (Keith Allison/Flickr)

Of all the interesting aspects of Ramirez’s career, I believe this upcoming season will be the most interesting. 497, is the most important number for Hanley. If he can reach 497 plate appearances in 2018, his 2019 option will vest and he will be making another $22 million. This is intriguing for the Red Sox, as they already own the highest payroll in baseball. 22 million dollars for a role player who put up the stats Hanley did in 2017, would not be ideal next season for Boston, so will the team try and limit his plate appearances? Think of it like this, as a win-win for the Sox. If Hanley struggles, they have the replacements to let him sit and not reach that number for his vesting option. They can start Mitch Moreland more at first, they can play J.D. Martinez there or they can even call up the young first baseman Sam Travis. This way, the team remains competitive, while still avoiding Hanley’s kicker in his contract. However, if Ramirez proves he’s still an offensive threat at the major league level, the Red Sox will let him play and earn his plate appearances at first and as the DH. If he can still hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs, the Red Sox will have no issue paying him his 22 million dollars next year. Monitoring Hanley and his ability in his at-bats is a huge key to watch for in the upcoming 2018 season. For someone who has been written off several times, and by three different franchises in his career, you have to respect the perseverance of Hanley Ramirez, and it’s showing off. Although we are just six games into 2018 at the time this article was written, Hanley has gotten off to a torrid pace. He’s hitting over .300 and already has his first home run, and in Tuesday night’s game against the Marlins, he provided the spark in extra innings to pull out a win for the now 5–1 Boston Red Sox. It’s fitting that this article comes at the time of another Hanley resurgence, and even more fitting it occurred back in the place of the beginning of this story, Miami. Business aside, let’s all hope for Hanley’s sake he’s effective in 2018. Once pegged as a “character problem” and someone who was clearly unhappy with the past teams he was on, it’s good to see Ramirez become the big, loveable teddy bear he has in Boston. He has shown more love for the game over the last couple seasons and has become a fan favourite amongst Red Sox nation for his entertaining quotes, and his ability to always know when the camera is on him in the dugout. Even Monday night after his first home run, he had time to make good on a bet he made with a kid who predicted that Ramirez would hit a home run that night. Hanley is one of the good guys in baseball and has become one of the most entertaining and selfless sluggers in our sport, and I for one think we should all support and root for this man’s success, both on and off the field. It has been a long journey for Hanley Ramirez, going from a young speed demon who was known for his average and bad attitude, to becoming this jacked guy, who’s hitting clean-up for the Red Sox and making kid’s dreams come true every night.

Love the Sox takes? Really hate them? Wanna talk baseball? Let me know on twitter! @jprincipe8

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John Principe

Writer, Editor and Social Media Director at Diamond Digest

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