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Hanley’s Power Outage

At 24-17, the Florida Marlins are in the thick of the NL East race. The Fish sit just a game and a half back of the division-leading Phillies, thanks to middle-of-the-pack pitching and hitting and superb defense. Florida’s staff collectively ranks sixth in the NL in xFIP, its offense is sixth in runs scored, and Marlins fielders pace the Senior Circuit in runs saved, according to Ultimate Zone Rating.

The Marlins’ offense would no doubt rank toward the top of the league if Hanley Ramirez weren’t mired in a season-long batting slump during which his power production has been downright Ecksteinian. The perennial first-round pick, projected by ZiPS to hit .309/.388/.512 in 2011, has instead slogged his way to a .211/.294/.309 triple-slash through 170 plate appearances.

Some unlucky bounces have played a part in Ramirez’s anemic start — his batting average on balls in play is .242, compared to a .329 expected BABIP and a career .341 BABIP. But there’s no doubt that Hanley hasn’t been his usual, powerful self at the plate. Projected for a .203 Isolated Power by ZiPS, Ramirez has a .099 ISO in 2011 that trails the mark posted by slap-hitting teammate Emilio Bonifacio. What in the name of ottoneu is going on here?

The biggest culprit in Ramirez’s wretched start is a sky-high ground ball rate. Ramirez has smacked the ball into the grass 56.1% of the time this season, the seventh-highest rate in the majors among qualified hitters. Not surprisingly, batters who hit grounders so frequently are a punchless lot — the highest ISO among the top 10 ground ball hitters is Jose Tabata‘s .129, and the collective ISO of the group is .080 (the MLB average is .137).

Ramirez’s worm-burning ways began last year, when he had a 51% ground ball rate and a career-low .175 ISO. Dave Allen was kind enough to look into Ramirez’s increase in grounders, based on pitch location. Hanley’s hitting more grounders against both inside and outside pitches. From 2007 (the first year for which there’s Pitch F/X data) to 2009, Ramirez hit a grounder 39% of the time on pitches thrown on the inside part of the plate. From 2010-2011, that percentage has climbed to 45. The increase is more dramatic on pitches thrown on the outside corner — Ramirez hit a ground ball 42% of the time on those offerings from ’07 to ’09, and 57% from 2010-2011.

Turning to Hanley’s spray chart numbers, we can see a few troubling trends. He’s pulling the ball less often, and when he does pull the ball, he’s hitting more grounders and showing less power. His ground ball rate on pitches hit to the middle of the field has also skyrocketed, with a precipitous drop in extra-base hits:

Is Hanley hitting a particular pitch type on the ground more often? According to Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s website, Ramirez is hitting more grounders on all offerings. Here are Ramirez’s ground ball rates by pitch type from 2008-2009 (the site doesn’t have the limited data from 2007) and then 2010-2011, with MLB averages provided by The Hardball Times’ Harry Pavlidis:

So, to recap: Ramirez’s power is down due to a spiking ground ball rate. Most of those extra grounders have come on pitches thrown on the outside corner of the plate, and it appears as though Hanley is weakly hitting those pitches to the middle of the diamond or to the pull side. Poor luck in the form of a BABIP that’s nearly 100 points below his career average has certainly played a part in his struggles, but he’s chopping fastballs, sliders, curves and changeups into the dirt much more than when he displayed elite power.

Despite all of the doom and gloom, there’s no reason to believe that Ramirez, at age 27 and with a track record of lashing extra-base hits and homers, has suddenly forgotten how to turn on a pitch. Changes in Isolated Power take upwards of 550 plate appearances to become significant, so Hanley’s slap hitting thus far probably isn’t cause for alarm. ZiPS has Ramirez rebounding to the tune of a .293/.374/.481 line for the rest of the season, with a .187 ISO.

If ever there were a time where you could snag Ramirez at a discount from an exasperated owner, this would be it. Hanley’s in a funk, but he’s bound to start hitting like the superstar we’ve come to know and love since 2006.