In the span of a year, Hanley Ramirez has gone from fastball prey to fastball hunter.
In his first 229 games as a member of the Red Sox, from last April through August 29, Ramirez hit exactly zero home runs on pitches with a velocity of 94 m.p.h. or faster. In his last 16 games, he has launched four of them, with three — a 444-foot blast against Joe Biagini of the Blue Jays on Sunday, the 426-foot walkoff against Yankees closer Dellin Betances on Thursday, and the 442-foot rocket against Luis Cessa on Friday — coming in the span of six days.
“He’s fire right now. He’s torching the ball. He’s hitting the ball all over the place. He’s hitting the ball in clutch situations,” said teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. “He’s been the guy this past week and it’s been fun to watch.”
That Ramirez has arrived at this point represents a development that would have been virtually impossible to predict a year ago. In the age of big velocity, Ramirez featured a potentially fatal deficiency in 2015.
He simply couldn’t catch up to good fastballs, resulting in a ruthless pattern of attack by opposing pitchers as the season wore on. He hit just .236 against heaters, with fewer than half of his homers (8 of 19) coming against them.
A few elements came into play. Ramirez became over-muscled, in a way that seemed to inhibit the quick-twitch athleticism that allowed him to get to pitches of any type, velocity, and location in the past. With diminished bat speed, he had to cheat to get to fastballs, eventually making him vulnerable to off-speed pitches as well.
Moreover, Ramirez geared his swing for power, his one-handed finish signaling an all-or-nothing approach. And, of course, an early season injury in which he unwillingly introduced his left shoulder to the wall down the left field line at Fenway Park further diminished his explosiveness as a hitter.
How much did the shoulder injury impact his ability to get to fastballs?
“A lot,” Ramirez acknowledged.
That said, the abandonment of a compact approach in favor of a pull-happy swing with a big finish represented perhaps an even bigger issue. He has addressed it the second half of the season, during which he’s launched 18 of his 26 homers. He’s found a lowered hand position permits him to be more direct to the ball. His two-handed finish better permits him to react to pitches where they’re thrown while driving the ball to all fields.
“My swing is shorter — it’s shorter and powerful. [Manager John Farrell] was telling me all year, it was really powerful, and he wants me to stay right there. I’ve been able to do that,” said Ramirez. “I think the biggest thing, I’ve been able to make adjustments, see what they’re trying to do through the at-bat and go from there.
“I’ve been more focused through the at-bat, trying to make adjustments, and trying to show the swing I had before,” he added. “I’m just trying to think about what they’re trying to do, and what I’m trying to do with my swing — go from here to there.”
It’s working, in a way that has amazed some scouts in contrast to 2015. This year, according to BrooksBaseball.net, Ramirez is hitting .297 against four- and two-seam fastballs, with 17 of his 26 homers coming against heaters. Ramirez’s walkoff against a 99 m.p.h. fastball on Thursday is the fastest pitch he’s ever homered against, according to Daren Wilman of BaseballSavant.com.
Instead of trying to avoid fastballs, he’s now seeking them out. The at-bat against Betances proved illuminating. On 2-0, he swung-and-missed on a breaking ball because he was anticipating a heater. The same proved true of his 2-1 check swing, which was ruled a ball. When Ramirez finally got a fastball at the top of the strike zone and over the middle of the plate on a 3-1 count, he clobbered it.
A look at Ramirez’s slugging percentage by location shows a player who now wields a compact sledgehammer against pitches that are up in the strike zone.
Prior to Friday’s game, when Ramirez jumped on Cessa’s up-and-away fastball, he has a 1.351 slugging percentage against pitches that are in the upper-third of the strike zone and middle-out, including those that are off the plate. A year ago, he had a .500 slugging mark against such pitches.
Ramirez is, in short, a transformed hitter, emerging as a key contributor for a transformed team. As the Red Sox roll toward October, Ramirez is eyeing even bigger contributions going forward.
“I haven’t gotten hot yet,” he grinned. “We’ve got to keep forward, we’ve got to keep forward, pushing to the limit, grinding every day, give it everything we’ve got, and as a team, keep playing how we’ve been playing. … We’ve got to keep pushing to the limit and see how far we can go.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.