At a time when Hanley Ramirez is amidst a considerable offensive struggle, some members of the Red Sox organization might find it hard not to look at his counterpart from San Francisco with a bemused smirk on their faces.
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt is having an All-Star-caliber start to the year. He’s hitting .298/.416/.497 with more walks (39) than strikeouts (37). He ranks in the top five among big league first basemen in average, OBP, and slugging, and his park-adjusted OPS+ of 149 leads all big league first baseman.
So as the Red Sox play two games against the Giants this week, it won’t be lost on a few members of the scouting department that, 10 years ago, Boston drafted Belt.
Of course, when the Sox selected Belt out of high school in Texas in the 11th round of the 2006 draft, they viewed him as a future lefthanded pitcher rather than a middle-of-the-order bat. They took him in the last year of the old draft-and-follow system — in which teams could draft a player, watch him in junior college for a year, and then sign him prior to the following season’s draft — as a pitcher who had tremendous strikeout rates in high school and then at San Jacinto Junior College.
He didn’t handle the bat particularly well during that time, resulting in the team’s view of him as a pitcher. The Sox never came particularly close to signing him, and Belt enrolled at the University of Texas, where he took off as a hitter, setting the stage for his emergence in the Giants organization.
Belt’s trajectory is the nature of the beast when it comes to scouting high school hitters. At 18, players are unrefined, and often give little indication of what they’ll eventually become, so the Sox won’t spend much time lamenting their inability to sign Belt. (The Braves also drafted Belt out of San Jacinto in the 11th round in 2007, and likewise proved unable to sign him.)
Still, it might be difficult for the Sox not to envy the Giants for the production they’re getting from first base. Offense, of course, hasn’t been the Sox’ shortcoming this year, but it’s worth noting that there are a couple of spots on the diamond where the team has gotten limited production, with the biggest conundrum forming around Ramirez.
Red Sox first basemen rank 24th in OPS (.689), 28th in slugging (.382), and tied for 27th in home runs (4). Ramirez has hit for average (.282, seventh among 24 qualifying first basemen) with a solid .345 OBP (10th), but ranks 19th in slugging (.397) and 20th in OPS+ (98). The all-fields approach that served him well in the first five weeks (.319/.367/.469) gave way to a 17-game stretch without an extra-base hit, a run that was snapped with a double Sunday.
In spring training and in the early stages of the year, there was mounting evidence that Ramirez’s struggles over the final months of 2015 were a reflection of the shoulder woes incurred during his mishap down Fenway’s left-field line. Now, however, there are questions about whether he’s in a state of decline.
His 52.5 percent ground-ball rate represents a career worst. He’s striking out more than ever (20.7 percent), and when he does take the bat off his shoulder, he’s swinging and missing 24 percent of the time — a drastic increase for a player who has never had a rate in excess of 19 percent.
Those three numbers alone tell a potentially dramatic story. Ramirez is making less contact and worse contact than ever.
To date, that hasn’t been an issue because the rest of the lineup has been the Justice League. But if Ramirez doesn’t reverse those concerns, the Red Sox face some long-term challenges.
The departure of David Ortiz will create an obvious and considerable offensive void. If Ramirez can’t stabilize his struggles, then the Sox — who likely won’t be able to consider Sam Travis a viable option at first to start next year, given his missed development time while recovering from ACL surgery — may set their sights on the high end of the market for bats next winter (starting with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion), at a time when they remain on the hook for more than $40 million per year for Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
There have been recent signs that Ramirez may change course, not just with his double Sunday but with some loud contact for outs in the games leading up to it. Undoubtedly, the Sox hold out hope that that is a harbinger of a reversal.
Of course, while they look for anything to stoke those hopes, they might also be forgiven for shaking their heads whenever Belt steps in the box, understanding how the effects of a draft can reverberate a full decade later.