Evaluating the Career of Hanley Ramirez

Hanley Ramirez first came up with the Red Sox in 2005, had two plate appearances, and then was dished to the Marlins.  He officially started his regular career in 2006, and didn’t look back for the next five years.  He has often been credited for the many tools that he has or had: speed, hitting for average, and hitting for power.  But rarely has he been credited for doing all at the same time.  This article is to show you, the reader, exactly how rare Hanley Ramirez has been, and how to appreciate him correctly.

Since he came up to the major leagues in 2006 with the Marlins, Hanley Ramirez has wowed us with his skill.  In the early stages of his career, he was a young shortstop with amazing speed, good hit skill, and pop in his bat.  In that rookie season, he hit a solid .292 with an unexpected 17 home runs, and, most surprising of all, he notched 51 stolen bases.  He skipped the dreaded sophomore slump in his next big-league campaign, matching his previous total of 51 swiped bags, while improving almost everything in his stats.  He hit an amazing 29 home runs in 2007, while knocking in 81 runs and accumulating an impressive 5.2 WAR.  The most impressive part about that 2007 season, though, was his amazing .332 batting average.  

At this point in his career, many analysts and fans predicted that this would represent his regular prime stats — and what outstanding stats they were.  Yet it was not to be.  If believable, he got even better the next year, upping his homer total to 33, and improving both his walk rate and his ISO.  In addition, he raised his WAR to an astonishing 7.5.  Somehow, he did all this while dropping his BABIP 24 points, to ‘only’ .329, and stealing 16 less bases than in the previous year.  In his fourth year in the major leagues, his homer total along with that of his stolen bases dropped to below the 30 mark, but his average leaped up 40 points to .341!  His WRC+ also climbed 5 points to 149.  A less amazing year followed in 2010, but he was still impressive, hitting at a .300 clip with 21 homers and a 4.2 WAR.  

In 2011, he ended his streak of incredible campaigns, hitting for only a .243 average with a paltry 10 home runs.  In his first year as a veteran in the major leagues, Hanley picked his homer total up to 24, but his average remained below .260.  Overall, it was a pretty dismal two-year span for Hanley.  He rebounded spectacularly the next year, though, hitting .345 with 20 homers for a new team, the Dodgers.  Unfortunately, Hanley’s homer total dropped to 13 in 2014, but he kept his average up to .288.  He also drove in 71 runs that year, making the year not a complete failure.  

He didn’t keep up his good streak for long, though.  In 2015, with the Red Sox, his average dropped back down to .249, while hitting 19 home runs.  Coming into 2016, Hanley must have tweaked something in his approach, because he had his first solid year in a long while.  With everything complete, he had 30 homers and 111 runs batted in with a .286 average.  That is a comeback.  It’s crazy, though, when looking at the journey he’s been through in the big leagues.  He’s hit for power, has stolen bases, and accumulated 7+ WAR — twice!  He did all this at the plate while playing the middle infield, corner outfield, and corner infield.

So now that the whole length and breadth of Hanley’s career has been touched upon, there is now a base on which his career can be evaluated.  Starting, of course, from the year he came up, it’s obvious from the overview above that Hanley was spectacular.  It’s certainly not normal for a player of his youth (he was 23 when he broke into the majors) to be successful upon immediate entry into the premier baseball league in the world.  So when looking at his statistics from that first year, it’s not too surprising to see that his BABIP in that first year was an unrealistically high .343.  That could mean many things.  The first thought that comes to mind when seeing a BABIP that high is “an extreme overdose of luck.” However, a whole season (700 plate appearances) is long enough that luck would wear off after less than half the season went by.  The luck theory seems even more ludicrous when looking at the next four years of his career.  In those four years, he averaged a BABIP of .345.  

There is another well-documented theory that may be applicable to Hanley’s situation.  He could, like Paul Goldschmidt, have been hitting so many line drives that such a high BABIP is easily achieved.  However, this theory is disproved when his average line-drive percentage is seen.  He averaged a line-drive percentage around 19 percent, compared to Goldschmidt’s idealistic 24 percent.  

This is not a case when the easy way out is taken, and it’s just said “that’s just who he is, he just hits for a high BABIP!”  Indeed, it is not who Hanley is: after those five years, his BABIP dropped to just .275 and .290 for two years afterward.  Thankfully, this question is easily solved by a very simple answer, one that might have slipped through the cracks of many a research team.  Such easy an answer suffices, in a day when complicated statistical analysis-based answers are some of the only answers accepted.  This is one of the few cases in which all statistical-analysis answers are proven to be insufficient, so an old tool is called upon in place of them.  

Simply put, the answer is speed.  For the first five years of his career, Hanley had unbelievable speed, evidenced by his 196 stolen bases in that span.  Of course, speed has a bigger factor than just the occasional slow roller between first and second that was beaten out through pure speed.  Speed means the opposing team pulling in their third baseman in case of a bunt, or pulling in the whole infield so the speedster doesn’t get that aforementioned infield hit (both of these scenarios would result in an easier opportunity to get a hit, because it’s extremely hard to stop a hard-hit ball when fielders are pulled into within 75 feet of home plate).  Speed means getting hittable pitches, so one is not walked, and therefore given a chance to steal a base.  

This theory of speed makes even more sense when it’s seen that as soon as Hanley’s speed began to diminish, he stopped getting a high BABIP.  His lack of speed in the 2011 and 2012 seasons affected his whole offensive output in that span.  In those two years,  he hit for an average of .250, and stole only (for him) 41 bases during those two seasons.  His rebound the next year (.345 avg., .363 BABIP) was due in large part to an uncharacteristic line-drive percentage of 22 percent, and a hard-hit percentage close to 50.  His horrible season in 2015 was most likely because of many reasons.  During that year, he had almost no remaining speed, a chronic inability to hit the ball hard, and an array of injuries.  However, he rebounded this year, accumulating 30 homers while hitting a solid .286.  

How he did that, it’s hard to know.  He barely improved his line-drive and hard-hit percentages, and certainly did not suddenly gain speed.  It’s now safe to say that somehow, someway, Hanley has completely revamped his approach to hitting.  Now that his speed is gone for good, he still is managing to stay extremely productive while not utilizing his speed to make his stats great.  Of course, he’s not even close to being as productive as he was during that five-year stretch, but he has managed to do what almost no speedster has done in the past: stay productive after the age of 31, when speed starts to diminish.  Many a speedster has fallen prey to this ailment called aging, including (but not limited to) Vince Coleman, Carl Crawford, and Scott Podsednik.  Of course, there are many exceptions, mainly Rickey Henderson and Ichiro Suzuki.  So Hanley has joined an elite club, one that definitely does not fit his style of play.

Over his career, Hanley has proven to be able to hit for power, average, and line drives, while also running well for a while.  Out of the five tools in baseball, three are for hitting.  Hanley could be the image of each, from different points in his career.  

Speed: he had two straight 51-steal seasons.  

Average: he has a .295 career average over his 11 year tenure in the major leagues.

Power: he’s accumulated seven seasons of 20+ home runs.  

He truly is and has been one of the most talented players in the major leagues.  Despite this, Hanley remains to be one of the most underappreciated players in the major leagues.  Not many players have done what he has done in his career, yet he is viewed as a good comeback player, not as the personification of the tools in hitting.



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Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

Very nice article. I’ve always been fascinated by players with unique career paths. I’d like to see another piece like this