The third spot in the lineup is typically reserved for one of the top hitters. So why are the Boston Red Sox considering using Hanley Ramirez in that spot?
The lineup the Boston Red Sox rolled out for Monday’s exhibition game may be the same one they use for Opening Day. The top half of the order is highlighted by the team’s best hitters, leaving no surprises aside from one puzzling exception. Hanley Ramirez is batting third.
There are various schools of thought when it comes to constructing a lineup. In most cases, the team’s best all-around hitters can be found in the top third of the lineup. This ensures the batter will be a threat in the first inning, while slotting closer to the top of the lineup maximizes plate appearances.
The No. 3 hitter needs to be able to hit for a solid average and drive in runs. Ramirez has been capable of that throughout his career but those aren’t traits that would have described him in two of his three seasons in Boston.
Ramirez hit a career-low .242 last season. His .320 on-base percentage was the second-lowest of his career, topping only his brutal 2015 season. His .750 OPS put him outside the top-50 in the American League. Ramirez also posted a bellow-average 93 wRC+ last season.
The Los Angeles Angels ranked 14th in the AL with a collective .251 batting average from the third spot last season. The Tampa Bay Rays were 14th with a .317 OBP and dead last with a .741 OPS from their No. 3 hitters. Rays’ No. 3 hitters produced a 97 wRC+ that tops what Ramirez gave Boston.
If Ramirez hits the way he did in 2015 and 2017 he’ll arguably be the worst No. 3 hitter in the league.
Sandwiched between those forgettable years was one great season. In 2016, Ramirez hit .286/.361/.505 with 30 home runs, 111 RBI and a 128 wRC+. Those numbers would make him among the five best No. 3 hitters in the league.
Cora appears to be banking on getting the 2016 version of Ramirez. He enters the season without the nagging shoulder injury that limited his swing last year or the position change that befuddled him in 2015. These are reasons to be optimistic of a bounce-back campaign but assuming it will happen out of the gate seems ill-advised. Ramirez has the upside to thrive in that role yet also carries significant downside.
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Batting Ramirez third also threatens the lineup stability. He’s not expected to be an everyday player, with Mitch Moreland sharing the other half of a first base platoon. Ramirez will also see time at DH when J.D. Martinez grabs a glove to head to the outfield. Still, the desire to keep him under the 497 plate appearances he needs for his 2019 option to vest should put a cap on his playing time. That would undoubtedly lead to drastic shakeups to the batting order for games Ramirez sits.
Even if Hanley begins the season batting third it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll stick in that spot for long. Dustin Pedroia could reclaim his usual No. 2 spot when he returns, which would push someone further down the lineup. Don’t count on that being Mookie Betts or Andrew Benintendi vacating the top third of the lineup.
Perhaps Cora’s plan is to let Ramirez occupy a coveted lineup spot in order to get him off to a positive start to a season in which his playing time could be more limited than he’s accustomed to. If he performs well then he’ll earn his spot more often than not. If he repeats last year’s disappointing results then at least Cora can say he tried to put Ramirez in the best position he could to succeed. That would make it easier to sit Ramirez without the risk of him becoming a malcontent in the clubhouse.
Slotting Ramirez in the third spot, ahead of Martinez, may be the best way to get the most out of him. If the move works out then it would be a boon for the Red Sox offense. If he struggles then Cora can’t be shy about dropping him down in the order, or out of it completely.