How can Hanley Ramirez be a good defensive first baseman? By hitting.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification of course. First base defense is of course a critical component of a team’s overall run prevention, with the possibility that an elite defender at first can help create a standout infield group, much as Eric Hosmer represents a critical anchor of Kansas City’s infield.
That said, first basemen are judged far more heavily based on their offensive production, and just as Ramirez was being discussed as a potential MVP candidate last April when he slammed 10 homers and carried a largely moribund Red Sox offense, many of the transitional hiccups that accompany his move to first base will be forgiven if he mashes.
A year ago, Ramirez delivered plenty of thunder through the first month of the season, hitting .283/.340/.609 before crashing into the wall down the left field line while trying to make a catch at Fenway. With the benefit of hindsight, the injury to his front shoulder appeared to derail the offensive approach that had established him as one of the game’s best pure hitters when the Red Sox signed him to a four-year, $88 million deal.
Ramirez hit .239/.275/.372 over his final 80 games before being shut down in late August. Yet beyond his numbers, his approach proved a far cry from his norm. Ramirez has distinguished himself throughout his career for his ability to do damage against pitches in every area of the strike zone.
In 2014, for instance, on pitches down and away that he put in play, he hit .291 with a .427 slugging mark. After his shoulder injury last year, he was 8-for-58 on such pitches (.138) with no extra-base hits, resulting in an identical .138 slugging mark. He could get beaten repeatedly on fastballs away, particularly down. (Those numbers come from BrooksBaseball.net.)
Now, the Sox believe they’re seeing something different. Where Ramirez would cheat to get to fastballs last year, and often roll them over while pulling them, he’s shown an increased ability in the early going to stay back on the ball and generate bat speed without effort.
“His shoulder got hurt and everything changed. When your shoulder is hurting, you don’t trust your reactions,” said assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. “He wasn’t able to really use his hands and a lot of times with soft tossers, he was able to let it come to him a little bit. With the fastball, he wasn’t able to do that. … He wasn’t able to stay back and trust it. He couldn’t hit that [pitch down and away], he has to stay closed and go get it.
“Everything you’re seeing [now] is the result of being healthy. His BP (batting practice), he’s hitting the ball all over place. He’s not just trying to cheat to get to that ball. He’s staying nice and tight and trusting his hands.”
A double against Boston College on Monday highlighted that ability, as Ramirez took an easy swing on a fastball down and away and hit a hard line drive off the scoreboard in left field for a double. Two things stood out: A quicker, more compact swing – with an under-control finish, a product of the team asking Ramirez to keep two hands on the bat in his early work – and the ability to get to a fastball down and away and impact it.
“Definitely I couldn’t hit that pitch down there [in 2015]. That one I got a chance to stay through,” said Ramirez. “Not only that, but that work we put in in the cage to try to find my swing and shorten it down and we made a couple of changes and it seems like it’s working.”
As much as Ramirez’s defense will come under a microscope, his offense represents as significant a variable, based on the extreme contrast of his 2015 season and his track record before that. If Ramirez is anything like the hitter he was prior to the fateful intersection of his shoulder and the wall last May, then in all likelihood, he’ll be a productive first baseman, regardless of any growing pains he experiences at a new position.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.