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Alex Speier

If Alex Gordon can prosper in left field, why can’t Hanley Ramirez?

Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is rated among the best defensive players in the American League.
Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is rated among the best defensive players in the American League.(AP)

By now, it’s no secret – the move by Hanley Ramirez from shortstop to left field has gone poorly, with Ramirez ranking by most metrics as the worst defensive player in the game this year regardless of position.

Fangraphs pegs him at 14.2 runs worse than a league average left fielder, and Baseball Information Solutions has evaluated him as 15 runs worse than the average player at his position. Even as the Sox have seen some hints of improvement – more aggressive and direct routes to the ball, some well-played balls off the Green Monster, the first glimpses of a willingness to take a risk rather than looking like someone who has frozen while contemplating a bungee jump – the statistics are ugly.

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No need to belabor the point. There are two critical issues related to Ramirez’s performance in left field. One is whether he can indeed get better, and improve to the point of playing the position credibly so that he can become an asset rather than a detriment. The other relates to why the Red Sox assumed the risk of moving him to left field in the first place.

A piece of an answer to both questions may reside in left field for the first-place Royals club that the Red Sox will face for three games starting tonight.

Alex Gordon has become a game-changer in left field for Kansas City. He’s a great defender, one of the game’s best at any position, with four straight Gold Gloves and counting.

According to BIS, he has saved nine runs compared to an average left fielder thus far this year, his impact tied for the fifth-greatest in the American League to this point in 2015. (Fangraphs has him at five runs better than average, 13th in the AL) In 2014, BIS had Gordon as the most impactful defensive player in the American League, 27 runs better than an average left fielder, while Fangraphs had him as the third-best glove man in the AL at 17.9 runs better than average.

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But, of course, Gordon wasn’t always a left fielder. Indeed, in the five seasons (three of them spent at least in part in the big leagues) from the time he was drafted in 2005 through 2009, Gordon never stepped foot in the outfield in a game. He was a third baseman by upbringing – and for much of the time, a below-average one at that – who blossomed when permitted to let his athleticism play in open space.

As much as the Red Sox recognized the possibility for transitional challenges, they felt strongly that Ramirez had a chance to be at least adequate, and quite possibly a standout defender in left, based on the fact that he’d been enough of an athlete to spend almost the entirety of his eight big league seasons at short. They had the memory of how quickly Ramirez had improved defensively coming up in the minors at short, and felt there was reason to believe in both his skills and aptitude. If Gordon could do it . . .

“We’ve got a shortstop playing left field. A lot of the good ones came off third base and are playing left field, including some of the better ones like Alex Gordon,” said one Red Sox evaluator prior to the start of the season. “A lot of people say there’s risk putting [Ramirez] in left field. No there’s not. He’s an athlete and he’s going to eat it up. I can’t wait to watch him throw guys out and make shortstop plays in left field. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Hanley Ramirez has made three errors this season.
Hanley Ramirez has made three errors this season.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

That hasn’t been the case. The Sox have seen Ramirez leak runs. But can they expect him to get better?

There aren’t a lot of players who have moved from shortstop to left field to offer insight into Ramirez’s expected learning curve. Since 1901, Baseball-Reference.com identifies just 17 players who have played at least 100 games at both short and in left field, and most of those players came up as utility players. One interesting exception: Shawon Dunston, who like Ramirez graded as a well below-average shortstop but ended up being a roughly average outfielder.

Among more recent players, Gordon offers at least some promise. He initially graded as an average outfielder (when splitting time between left and right) in his first year of moving off the dirt in 2010, before flourishing as a player who was credited with 20 runs saved in 2011, his first of four straight Gold Glove seasons. He offers evidence of the potential for substantial improvement in a player’s second year going from the left side of the infield to left.

Of course, there are other instances of players who made a less successful transition to the outfield. Chipper Jones moved to left as a 30-year-old after his third base defense had turned costly; he was a shade better than average for a year and then declined precipitously as a 31-year-old, with the Braves then electing to move him back to the infield. And Gary Sheffield, who came up as a shortstop and then moved to third in his early-20s, went from being an infielder who perennially graded as well below-average to being an outfielder who perennially graded as well below-average.

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If Ramirez were hitting like Sheffield, that’s a proposition that the Red Sox could accept. But for now, his present defensive inadequacy – even if transitional – is accompanied by modest offensive impact. In 37 games since returning from his shoulder injury, Ramirez is hitting .254 with a .296 OBP and .352 slugging mark.

Those numbers would be fine if he were playing defense like Gordon. But he’s not. And so, the Red Sox are left to wait and hope, knowing that Ramirez has a track record that suggests that his offense will improve, while crossing their fingers that what seemed like such a natural positional transition will eventually start to yield the sort of dividends that have yet to be seen.

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