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Has Hanley Ramirez lost his power forever?

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Hanley Ramirez is having the worst offensive season of his career. Can he rediscover his power stroke, or are the underlying signs of decline too strong to counteract?

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Red Sox lack starting pitching; in fact, the topic dominates the local media and fans clamor for a trade. The complaints are not unwarranted, as Boston starters have accrued an ERA of 4.50, backed up by a weak FIP of 4.49, good for ninth-worst in the majors. The team, however, has stayed afloat, and has at times even looked like a World Series contender, on the back of a league-best offense. Red Sox hitters have been 18 percent above league average, bailing the pitching out of numerous weak outings.

Recently, however, even the offense has scuffled, leading to 7 losses in Boston's last 11 games, and 15 losses in 26 contests. While the pitching has remained a weakness, the offense has recently not been explosive enough to overcome the woes of the pitching staff. Boston's hitting, tops in the majors for much of the year, has been the 12th-most productive offense in baseball over the past two weeks, and the team has suffered in the win column as a result. Specifically, the offense has posted an ISO — a good measure of power hitting — of .144 in the last 14 days, 22nd in the majors and well below their season-long ISO of .184.

A driving force behind Boston's power outage has been the continued decline of Hanley Ramirez. Once a feared middle-of-the-order bat, Ramirez seems to have lost his power stroke. His current ISO of .122 would be the worst of his career, as would his wRC+ of 89 (suggesting that his production at the plate has been 11 percent below league average). Even during Hanley's lost 2015 season he posted an ISO of .177 and hit 19 home runs in 430 at-bats. However, his home run on Wednesday was just his second since May 10th, bringing his total on the season to a meager six.

When the rest of the Red Sox offense is firing on all cylinders, it can handle underperformance from one of its expected contributors. However, once other players begin to struggle as well, Ramirez's lack of production becomes much more glaring. The question then, becomes: can Hanley rediscover his power stroke and recoup some value at the plate? Or is he already a sunk cost?

At this point in the season, the prognosis is not promising. There are, however, a few positives. Hanley is still hitting the ball pretty hard; his hard-hit rate (the percentage of his balls hit at a speed FanGraphs classifies as "hard") sits at 33.8%, up from last year's rate of 31.1% and slightly above his career average of 33.1%. Three other players in baseball have a hard-hit rate this season of exactly 33.8 percent, and their ISO's are represented in the table below:

Hard-hit %

ISO

Carlos Gonzalez

33.8%

.235

Ben Zobrist

33.8%

.168

Albert Pujols

33.8%

.162

Hanley Ramirez

33.8%

.122

Gonzalez's ISO is a little bit skewed because he plays half his games in Denver, but Zobrist and Pujols should be good comps. We would expect a player with Hanley's hard-hit rate to post a higher ISO, so some of the issue might be bad luck. Consider: Ramirez's HR/FB ratio, which usually regresses to a player's career norms, sits at 9.5%, the lowest of his career and well below his lifetime average of 13.9%. If some of those long fly balls start turning into home runs, Hanley's power numbers could see a surge. Additionally, his average exit velocity of 91.5 miles per hour compares favorably to last season's average of 91.0, suggesting that, at the very least, his ISO should improve going forward.

There are, however, some troubling trends in Hanley's batted ball profile that may preclude him from ever wholly rediscovering his old power. First, look at the following chart describing Ramirez's ground ball rate by season:

Season

GB%

2013

40.6%

2014

45.1%

2015

50.0%

2016

53.4%

Hanley's ground ball rate this season of 53.4% puts him 19th in the majors, ahead of slap hitters such as Jose Iglesias and Alcides Escobar. Of course, Hanley hits his ground balls harder than those two, but it's extremely difficult to hit for extra bases when putting the ball on the ground well more than half the time. Among the 30 qualified hitters with the highest ground ball rates in the majors this season, the average ISO is just .130, well below the major-league average of .180. Clearly, Ramirez's growing ground-ball tendencies have contributed to his decreasing power.

A closer look at Ramirez's batted-ball tendencies reveals that the problem is perhaps even more serious than it appears on the surface. Hanley's batted balls have been hit with an average launch angle of just 5.4 degrees off the ground, down from an average of 6.1 degrees in 2015. This ranks him 315th out of 345 hitters with at least 50 batted ball events. Ramirez continues to hit the ball at a low angle more than almost anyone else in baseball; therefore, it is reasonable to expect more ground balls and fewer extra base hits in the future.

Finally, the following chart describes Ramirez's pull rate on batted balls over the past three seasons:

Season

Pull %

2014

43.2%

2015

37.1%

2016

35.7%

Since it is usually advantageous to pull for power, it is no surprise that Hanley's decreasing pull rate has coincided with his rapidly falling ISO and home run totals. Over the past three seasons, Ramirez has seen a simultaneous increase in ground ball rate and decrease in pull rate. These factors, along with increasing age, are probably the main causes of his diminishing power.

So will the power come back? Probably a little bit. As his HR/FB ratio returns to normal levels, some of Hanley's fly balls will likely turn into home runs. And since his hard hit rate has remained consistent, it is reasonable to expect a higher ISO going forward. However, if Ramirez's launch angle remains as low as it has been thus far, a steady stream of ground balls can be expected, which will put major limitations on his power. The Red Sox offense will likely rebound in some way from its recent slide; it would be unwise, however, to count on too much of a contribution from Hanley Ramirez, at least in the power department.

Data courtesy of Fangraphs.com, BaseballSavant.mlb.com, and BrooksBaseball.net.

Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He will be a senior at Colby College next fall. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.