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Hanley’s “Down” Season Ends

Like countless other fantasy owners, I jumped all over Marlins’ shortstop Hanley Ramirez with the second overall pick in my fantasy draft this season. The shortstop position in general is a wasteland, so getting a premium performer at that spot is a major coup. From 2007-2009, Ramirez hit .325/.398/.549 with a .409 wOBA and an average of 28.7 HR and 37.7 SB per year, and there was no reason to expect him to not continue producing at that pace as he entered his age-26 season.

On August 1st, 106 games into his season (arbitrary endpoints), Hanley sported a rather un-Hanley-like .279/.362/.435 batting line with just 14 homers. He was benched for a lack of hustle earlier in the season and had been battling a series of minor and nagging injuries all summer (everything from a sore ankle to a hamstring strain to lightheadness to a sore back according Corey Dawkins’ great injury tool). A late surge had Ramirez’s season line sitting at .300/.378/.475 (.373 wOBA) with 21 homers and 32 steals before elbow issues ended his season prematurely. It’s certainly fine production, but a notch below what he had done while posting consecutive seven-plus win seasons in 2008 and 2009.

Of course, offense is down around the league, something like 4.6% (ballpark figure). Ramirez’s offensive production is down around 10-14%, so it’s not just a matter of the decline in overall offense projecting itself onto him. Something else was going on this season, so let’s dive into the batted ball data.

Coming into the season with an established BABIP of around .350 or so, Hanley’s average on balls in play dipped to .327 in 2010, the lowest of his career. That can likely be attributed to a career worst 16.3% line drive rate, down about 2% or so from the past few seasons. His homerun production remained very strong (14.2% HR/FB) even though his fly ball rate was a career low 32.7%, down considerably (8-10% or so) from his previous performances. As you’d expect with career lows in LD% and FB%, his groundball rate was a career high 51%, up almost 10% from the past few years.

Naturally, the increase in grounders led to fewer extra base hits, with Hanley’s ISO dipping into the .100’s (.175, to be exact) for the first time since his rookie campaign. Let’s graph it up, with some help from Texas Leaguers. Here’s his 2008 and 2009 spray charts…

Now here’s 2010…

Nothing really out of sorts here, though the increase in opposite field homeruns stands out. Of course adding power the other way isn’t unusual players as talented as Hanley at that age. The hits to shallow left and center are a bit more spread out this year compared to 2008-2009, when they were lumped together in two distinct groups, but otherwise there’s nothing to get worked up over. The fact that nothing stands out, say an extreme increase in balls hit to the opposite field or yanked down the line, is a good thing. We don’t want change, we want the same old Hanley Ramirez.

Has Troy Tulowitzki eclipsed Hanley as the top fantasy shortstop? I think a very strong case can be made that he has, but that’s an argument for another time. If Ramirez is able to cut back on the grounders and starts clubbing more line drives and fly balls, the ISO and run production will come back. His batted ball profile changed somewhat considerably as he battled elbow problems and various other ailments (correlation ≠ causation, of course), but at his age there’s no reason to think his bat has slowed to the point that it’s a long-term concern.

I wouldn’t at all hesitate to grab Ramirez with a top three fantasy pick next season. He’s still clearly an elite fantasy performer even with his “down” season, particularly at the shortstop season. Sometimes players just have seasons below their standards, and that’s quite easy to do when your standards are as lofty as Hanley’s.