2015 was definitely not the year for Hanley Ramirez. He played a shortened season due to a shoulder injury caused from crashing into the wall at Fenway Park and finished the season with only 19 home runs and a subpar .249 batting average. His league-worst defensive rating in left field also did not help endear him to Red Sox Nation. What had happened to the once Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star, and two-time Silver Slugger?
2016, however, has been a much-needed year of transformation for the 32-year-old Dominican. The most noticeable change in Ramirez’s play this year has been his position shift from left field to first base. After struggling in the outfield all season, to the point where he was pulled completely at the beginning of September, the Red Sox no longer have to watch Hanley’s common mistakes. Instead, it has definitely been a welcome sight to see his hustle and surprising skill at his brand new position in the infield.
More difficult to see has been Hanley’s change at the plate. The root of Hanley's offensive transformation this year has been the changes he’s made to his swing. Last season, Hanley was very noticeable for his high leg kick that was very similar to another former Red Sox outfielder by the name of Ramirez. During the offseason, however, Hanley shortened his leg kick, allowing for more control, as opposed to power, when he is swinging the bat.
The difference that his altered swing has had on Ramirez’s hitting has been huge, even if doesn’t show up in his batting statistics. Glancing at his .285/.356/.484 slash line, his stats look solidly above average, and are definitely better than his 2015 stats of .249/.291/.426. However, some inconsistency at the plate masks how good Hanley has been this season when he was not in a slump.
One noticeable difference in Ramirez’s hitting that stems from his increased control with the bat is his ability to hit to the opposite field. As his spray chart from 2015 illustrates, Hanley rarely hit long balls to right field. This season’s spray chart, however, shows a much more even spread of hits across the field:
Something interesting to notice about Hanley’s changed approach at the plate is that the increased control a hitter gets from a smaller leg kick normally comes at the expense of power. So, why is Ramirez on track to record home run numbers similar to the years he was a Silver Slugger while his slash line is nowhere near what it used to be? (For reference, his slash line in 2009, the year he finished 2nd in MVP voting, was a whopping .342/.410/.543).
The answer lies in the way Hanley hits fly balls. His rate of fly balls that were hit for home runs has increased from 31.6 in 2015 to 63.6 so far in 2016. This puts Hanley back where he was in this statistic during 2009, one of his his peak years of production.
However, this increased rate of flyballs per BIP hit for home runs has been talked about across the majors. There has been much speculation that the current baseballs being using by the MLB are "juiced" and are hit further on less powerful contact, therefore inducing more home runs. In fact, Hanley's Red Sox teammates David Ortiz, Xander Bogearts, and Dustin Pedroia have all seen increased rates of flyballs per BIP hit for home runs. This is also true for some of the best hitters in baseball, such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Josh Donaldson.
Since obviously not every power hitter in baseball has drastically altered their swing last season, but they're still seeing the same increase that Ramirez has, there is clearly something else at work here. Across the league, fly balls are more often becoming home runs instead of outs, and overall the number of home runs is up. Unfortunately for Hanley, this probably means that his newfound success can't be attributed to solely his altered swing. Still, his revamped swing and approach at the plate has only helped his cause.
To the Red Sox, the reason that Hanley Ramirez's hitting has improved probably matters much less than the simple fact that he's hitting like the middle-of-the-lineup force that he can be. If anything, Hanley Ramirez should be credited for adjusting his swing to fit the trends of the MLB as a whole, and it has certainly been paying off for him.
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Sara Stokesbury is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can reach her on Twitter at @sarastokes14.