BRADENTON, Fla. — The Red Sox say they are satisfied with the transition Hanley Ramirez is making from shortstop to left field. They speak glowingly of his athletic ability and enthusiasm for making the switch.
Now they need to see him actually catch a few more balls to validate those thoughts.
Ramirez played 16 innings in left field over his first three games, and only one ball came his way. The Sox could have used a folding chair in the field for all it mattered.
“One routine fly ball,” manager John Farrell said.
That changed a bit Thursday. Ramirez made the 90-minute bus ride to McKechnie Field to get some more work and was rewarded when the Pirates hit two balls to left field on a bright, sunny day.
With runners on first and third, Ramirez caught a fairly standard fly ball off the bat of Andrew McCutchen in the first inning. As Sean Rodriguez tagged up from third, Ramirez made the right play and threw to second base.
Ramirez was challenged in the fourth inning when Starling Marte popped a ball up into the gap. Ramirez called off center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., got under the ball, used his glove to shade his eyes, and made the catch.
“I was ready, definitely,” Ramirez said. “I’ve done the work, it’s been good.”
Ramirez said popups aren’t the same in the outfield as they are in the infield because you have to stay behind the ball.
“I like it and I feel comfortable in left field, that’s the main thing,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez has been primarily a shortstop during his 10-year career in the majors with the exception of 2012, when he played 90 games at third base for the Miami Marlins. He trusts his physical tools and ability to react when he goes on the field.
“I don’t think about anything. I don’t think,” he said. “Effortless. I’m ready for anything. I’ve always played like that.”
Ramirez has been instructed to look at the dugout for how to position himself. But the knowledge gained from all that time at shortstop will help.
“If you know the batter, you’ll have an idea what kind of hitter he is and you’ll be able to adjust,” Ramirez said.
Mike Napoli has been an interested spectator to Ramirez’s shift. In 2013, the Red Sox signed Napoli to play first base knowing he had been a catcher for most of his career. Napoli worked diligently in spring training that season and has since been one of the better defensive first basemen in the league.
Napoli has 17 DRS (defensive runs saved) over the last two seasons. DRS is a measure of how many successful plays are made over the league average.
Red Sox left fielders were ranked 22d in baseball last season in DRS, so Ramirez needs only to be average to significantly improve the defense there.
“He just needs games,” Napoli said. “Taking grounders helped me a lot with the footwork, but nothing helps more than playing at game speed.”
Said Farrell, “More innings, more games. We have no question about his ability out there.”
When Ramirez became a free agent, he had agent Adam Katz contact the Red Sox and express his willingness to change positions if he meant he could return to the organization that originally signed him. That impressed the Sox.
“He wants to do it,” David Ortiz said. “Sometimes a team will tell a player he has to move and he doesn’t want to. But Hanley, this is what he wants. He’ll be fine out there.”
The Sox have had success moving players. Along with Napoli, Mookie Betts made the switch from second base to the outfield and outfielder Daniel Nava had spent time at first base.
“We’re not afraid to try it,” Farrell said.
Farrell said Ramirez would be in the lineup again Friday night against the Yankees at JetBlue Park. Arnie Beyeler, the team’s outfield coach, wouldn’t mind seeing Ramirez dig a ball out of the corner in left field or play one off the wall.
“That would be nice,” Beyeler said. “He’s going to make some mistakes along the way but everything has gone the way we hoped it would.”