Boston Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez is no longer the prodigal son. In fact, he is the key to the offense and defense this season.
You read that correctly: Ramirez is the X-factor in how the Red Sox perform in 2016.
After a dismal 2015 season, hitting just .249 and dealing with an epidemic of injuries, Ramirez looked about done. His twelve-year career seemed to be dwindling, playing poorly in left field in an experiment to get him out of the infield, as time caught up with him at shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He barely took practice seriously with the Red Sox, after signing a contract through 2018 worth $88 million, taking about 20 balls in left a day during spring training. It showed in his .969 fielding percentage and running into the foul wall, injuring himself once again and making Red Sox Nation feel like he was washed up as a baseball player who was just now going to milk out his final years for big money.
Fast-forward to last night against the Houston Astros. With two men in scoring position and one out, the Astros intentionally walked designated hitter David Ortiz to get to Ramirez. Ortiz has been hot to start the year and Houston didn’t want him to burn them early in the game for any runs. They were hoping to induce Ramirez to fall victim to a groundball for a double play, with the slow-moving Big Papi at first base.
They got the groundball that they wanted, but the result was something that nobody would have expected last season. Instead of sulking about grounding out, Hanley actually ran like his life depended on it. Instead of being an easy out, Ramirez’s effort made the Astros defense rush the play, making second baseman Jose Altuve miss touching the base for the Ortiz forceout. The throw ended up being late, allowing for both Ortiz and Ramirez to be safe and scoring Mookie Betts to take the early lead.
If that wasn’t enough, Ramirez didn’t just try to find his perfect pitch and crank home runs when he was the leadoff man; he took early pitches to put the ball in play and made contact just to get on base.
Who is this man and what have you done with Hanley Ramirez?
It’s all true. In fact, the leadoff hit that he earned in the twelfth inning set the table for his teammates to move him over into scoring position. Jackie Bradley Jr. ended up hitting a single for Ramirez to cross the plate as the winning run. How often do you hear about that scenario? Ramirez got on base for someone else to drive him in for the victory.
This man is a different Ramirez than the one a year ago, and that’s exactly what the Red Sox need from him. Ortiz will be in front of him in the lineup, and with him being so hot at the plate, with no signs of slowing down, he will likely get walked many times. He’s already been walked 12 times in 17 games. If Boston wants to take advantage of the situation, Ramirez is going to be the key. His job will be the same that it has been so far this season: try to move Ortiz or other runners on base.
Ramirez has the potential to score each time that he goes to bat with his home run power, but his approach at the dish looks completely different than last season. In April 2015, Han-Ram hit 10 homers and 22 RBIs; he also hit .235 with just two homers and five RBIs in the following month, essentially throwing himself off of his game for which he never fully recovered. By July, he was hitting .211, looking desperate at the plate to prove his critics wrong with one mighty swing of the bat.
Now, he’s hitting .270 with a .291 on-base percentage. He may only have one homer and nine RBIs, but he looks more at peace with his swing. So does the man swinging lefty behind him, Travis Shaw, who has the same amount of production on a .333 batting average. One could argue that Shaw’s numbers are even better than Ramirez and that maybe he should hit in the cleanup spot; however, it would be a mistake. One could also argue that Shaw is getting to see better pitches because both Ortiz and Ramirez are making it harder for starting pitchers to get out of extended innings, making it possible for Shaw to get more legitimate opportunities for a hit.
Even Ramirez on defense looks completely different. For being at first base, a position completely foreign to him, Ramirez has looked stellar. He has been making some highlight-reel plays at first, scooping balls in the dirt which would have passed by a weaker defensive player, earning him a perfect fielding percentage. Any type of stretching or adjustments made mid-play would normally make Red Sox Nation cringe with dread that Hanley would then plead that he was injured once again and have to leave the field. Instead, Ramirez is bouncing back up and making sure that he gets the out, then he comes back out for another round of it with no issues. While his range factor for nine innings is below the league average for the position (7.24 to 8.93), most fans felt like he was going to fluff off the position while he waits for Ortiz to retire and take the mantle as the Red Sox designated hitter. So, this aggressively defensive Ramirez is surprising in a good way, regardless of his range thus far.
With the starting rotation struggling, it is good for them and the team to know that they have a first baseman like Ramirez who gives it everything that he has to catch the ball and steady the defense on groundballs. Double plays are not so scary with Ramirez having his old shortstop hands come in handy on tough throws.
Put that defense together with his more consistent, if not as powerful, bat and you have a more complete player in Ramirez than fans are used to seeing. Many of the big-name players who signed large contracts with the team may be struggling. Pablo Sandoval, who came to the Red Sox at the same time as Ramirez, signed a huge contract only to lose his starting position at third base to a much younger, cheaper, and better player. Yet, Ramirez is finally starting to look more like a good investment for the team. Some people may still argue that he is way overpaid for his production, but that money may just be vindicated by Ramirez if he continues to put the team first above everything else, including the long ball.