Oh, Hanley!

Just another year for the Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Look! There’s Hanley leading the league with 186 base hits. Look! There he is at the top of the leaderboard in batting average at .358. Hey! He has 63 extra base hits. Wow! His OPS+ of 160 trails only Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez.

(Icon/SMI)

Next to the Great Pujols, there isn’t a better hitter in the National League right now than Hanley Ramierz. Why can’t the guy get any love?

Sure, he plays his home games in Miami in front of crowds so small you need your fingers and just a couple of toes to count the fans. So is that it? Are most of us ignoring Ramirez because of geography and apathy from the locals? Or is it because his Marlins haven’t been truly competitive in his first three seasons in the big leagues? The Marlins certainly don’t get time from ESPN or FOX. Or is it because Florida is in the same division as the Mets and the Phillies—two teams that have staged some epic battles over the last few years? Those two teams have overshadowed their competition in the East.

(Disclaimer: On the video game, “MLB, The Show,” I created myself as a right-handed throwing, left-handed batting shortstop and picked Ramirez’s batting stance as my own. I’m aware Ramirez bats right, but it’s easier for me to hit as a lefty in video games. Anyway, other than that I modeled my entire player after Ramirez. It’s funny because in high school I threw left, was a first baseman and modeled my batting stance after Rod Carew. I love video games.)

Ramirez has been raking since his professional debut earlier this decade. And it’s possible the 2009 season is his best yet. His offensive performance isn’t a surprise to those who have followed him for his whole career.

Prologue

Ramirez was signed as an amateur free agent in 2000 by the Boston Red Sox at the age of 16. He made his professional debut in America two years later in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, where he hit .341/.402/.555 in 45 games before earning a promotion to short season A ball in the New York-Penn League. He appeared in 22 games for Lowell and didn’t miss a beat, hitting .371/.400/.356. It was a performance that wowed the prospect watchers who immediately moved him to the head of the Red Sox class. Here’s what Baseball America had to say about the 18 year old following the 2002 season:

“Ramirez is a legitimate five-tool shortstop who has instincts to go with his athletic talents…. Ramirez has quick hands and the ball jumps off his bat… Ramirez recognizes pitches, can hit the breaking ball and uses the whole field… Ramirez projects to be a plus hitter for both average and power in the big leagues….”

Ramirez struggled a bit in Single-A in 2003, hitting .275/.327/.403 in 111 games. At times, his temper landed him in the hot seat. The Sox sent him to extended spring training that year for 10 days after he made an obscene gesture to fans. He had also been sent home from the Instructional League the previous season after cursing at a team trainer. These aren’t good incidents for sure, but the Sox worked with him on his maturity and he played 2004 as a model citizen.

The 2004 season didn’t start well for Ramirez: He fell running the bases and landed on his left wrist. With the young shortstop in pain, doctors initially thought he strained his wrist, but it turned out to be a hairline fracture that caused him to miss almost eight weeks. Once he returned, he turned in a solid performance for High-A Sarasota, hitting .310/.364/.389. That earned him a promotion to Double-A where he hit .310/.360/.512 in 32 games. He was named the Sarasota MVP in 2004, the third time in four professional seasons in which Ramirez was named the team MVP. Baseball America was impressed:

“Ramirez’ five-tool package easily stands out.… He’s the best athlete in the system with the potential to excel in all aspects of the game.”

He played a full season at Double-A in 2005 and hit .271/.335/.385. With the Red Sox having plenty of prospects in the minor league system, Ramirez was a highly tradeable commodity. A deal happened early that offseason. Ramirez arrived in Florida thanks to a trade that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to the Red Sox on Nov. 25.

With Alex Gonzalez departing Florida via free agency and lacking a certain amount of depth at shortstop in their system, the Marlins penciled in Ramirez as their Opening Day starter at short.

His minor league numbers:

   Year     Level       PA        BA       OBP       SLG       BB%       SO%
   2002     Rookie     184       .341      .402      .555      9.7%      9.1%
   2002      A-SS      105       .371      .400      .536      3.8%     14.3%
   2003       A        464       .275      .327      .403      7.6%     17.3%
   2004     A-ADV      263       .310      .364      .389      6.5%     16.3%
   2004       AA       139       .310      .360      .512      7.2%     20.2%
   2005       AA       519       .271      .335      .385      7.5%     13.3%

The first year

In his debut for the Marlins (he went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in a late September call-up for the Red Sox in 2005), Ramirez led off against Houston’s Roy Oswalt and singled up the middle in his first at bat. He then struck out looking in his next three plate appearances.

Things went much better in his second game: He went 4-for-5 with a double and two RBI. Ramirez closed out his first full month hitting .304/.379/.489 with 11 extra base hits in 92 at bats. Everyone knew Ramirez could hit, but his 11 walks in his first month were a pleasant surprise; his career high for free passes in the minor leagues was only 39.

Touted as a five-tool player, Ramirez was developing power in the minor leagues. (It figures. He was only 21 in his final minor league season.) His biggest home run season was only eight, in 2003 when he was in the Sally League. He hit only six home runs in 465 at bats in his final season in the minors, in Double-A Portland, and his .385 slugging percentage was his lowest rate at any of his minor league stops. Although he was flashing gap power, it seemed it could be a while before he could mature enough as a hitter to drive the ball over the fences with regularity.

Then Ramirez found his power stroke that July in Florida. In 30 games from July 2 to Aug. 2, Ramirez smashed eight home runs and slugged .553. That was a span in which 47 percent of his hits (15 for 32) were for extra bases.

And he was still drawing the walks. He had 12 bases on balls in 129 plate appearances which contributed to his .354 OBP. A walk rate under 10 percent isn’t ideal for a leadoff hitter, but the Marlins didn’t really have anyone else who fit the bill. Miguel Cabrera, with a .430 OBP, was the best Marlin at reaching base, but he was a classic No. 3 hitter. For awhile the Marlins tried Alfredo Amezaga at the top of the order, shifting Ramirez to second, but the lineup worked better with Ramirez leading off and followed by the power of Dan Uggla and then Cabrera.

Ramirez finished strong, hitting .336/.380/.583 over the final two months with 22 doubles, six triples and eight home runs. More than 45 percent of his base hits were for extra bases.

Among rookies who qualified for the batting title, Ramirez led with a .292 batting average and was second to teammate Josh Willingham with an .833 OPS. His final line of .292/.353/.480 with 46 doubles, 11 triples, 17 home runs and 119 runs scored was barely enough to edge Ryan Zimmerman for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. It was an impressive win for Ramirez: The Marlins had an outstanding rookie class, with three of the top four rookie hitters as ranked by WAR. They also had the top two rookie starting pitchers in 2006 with Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez.

NL Rookie hitters, ranked by WAR
Ramirez          4.5
Zimmerman        4.1
Uggla            4.1
Willingham       2.9
Martin           2.8
Ethier           2.2
Fielder          1.1

In all, six Marlins received at least one point in Rookie of the Year balloting. Ramirez was the head of a very impressive class.

The second year

Ramirez returned to the leadoff role and continued to set the table for the Marlins offense. Quite simply, he was the best fulltime leadoff hitter in the game in 2007. He led all hitters with an .405 on-base percentage, batting at the top of the order. (Don’t let certain major league managers fool you—the job of the leadoff man is to get on base.) And thanks to his 68 extra base hits as a leadoff man, he also led his peers with a .596 slugging percentage.

He wasn’t just a great leadoff hitter. It’s unfair to pigeon-hole him like that. He was a great hitter. Period. Let’s compare two shortstops from that season.

Player A – .332 BA, .386 OBP, .562 SLG, 145 OPS+, 83 XBH, .230 ISO, 6.0 WAR
Player B – .296 BA, .344 OBP, .531 SLG, 118 OPS+, 88 XBH, .235 ISO, 6.8 WAR

Player A is Ramirez. Player B was the National League MVP Jimmy Rollins. Ramirez finished 10th in the balloting.

That summer, Ramirez finished fifth in the league in batting average and ninth in slugging percentage. His 125 runs scored were behind only Rollins, who crossed the plate 139 times. He was second in hits with 212 and his 359 total bases placed him behind only Matt Holliday (386) and Rollins (380).

Granted, Ramirez’s defense was still a little unrefined. (Although putting it that way is probably showing my bias. An impartial observer probably would have termed his defense as horrible or dreadful.) His UZR/150 that year was -20.9, which was the worst rate among qualified shortstops. And according to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, his plus/minus rating was a -37. Yikes. Rollins, who added the Gold Glove to his hardware that winter, was a +7 and had a UZR/150 of 6.3. He wasn’t the best defensive shortstop in the NL that year, but we all know that sometimes offensive performance creeps into the defensive awards.

So maybe it was his defense that held Ramirez back in the MVP balloting, although if that was the case it was probably the first time in the history of the vote that the writers were perceptive enough to downgrade a poor fielding shortstop. Not to take anything away from Rollins, who had a fine season, but if Rollins was the MVP, then Ramirez deserved a little more respect than 10th.

The third year

Ramirez was still in the leadoff spot for the Marlins and posted a .400 on base percentage. Again, that was the best OBP among regular (those with more than 300 plate appearances) leadoff hitters.

His average dropped a bit to .301, but he changed his approach to become much more selective at the plate and drew a career high 92 walks. Here are Ramirez’s walk rates throughout his career:

2006 – 8.0%
2007 – 7.4%
2008 – 13.3%
2009 – 9.2%

It may be that his 2008 walk rate, being four percentage points higher than his second best rate, is an outlier. However, it’s obvious he changed his approach at the plate for the 2008 season and was much more selective than he had been in the past.

Swing rate
2006 – 42.3%
2007 – 45.3%
2008 – 40.9%
2009 – 47.6%

With his ability to get on base and the Marlins’ powerful lineup behind him, Ramirez again scored 125 runs. This time, that was good enough for the league lead.

Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that he improved his defense. He was no longer a butcher with the glove; he was now slightly below average. His UZR/150 was -0.6 and his Fielding Bible Plus/Minus number improved to +3.

Overall, he again had an outstanding season.

NL Hitters, Ranked by WAR
Pujols           8.9
Utley            8.1
Ramirez          7.6
C. Jones         7.6
Wright           7.4

Still, voters failed to see his greatness. He finished 11th in the MVP balloting. He was behind Carlos Delgado and Aramis Ramirez, whom Ramirez bested in every meaningful statistical category. Sigh. (Ramirez wasn’t the only one overlooked. Chipper Jones led the league with a .364 batting average and a .470 OBP and finished 12th.)

In May of that year, the Marlins locked up their star, signing him to a six year, $70 million deal. The contract effectively buys out his arbitration and first three years of free agency.

The fourth (and current) year

This season, Ramirez is leading the National League with 187 hits and with a .357 batting average. His .422 OBP is the best of his career, as is his current .567 slugging percentage. Here are his stats through Sept. 16:

593 PA, 187 H, 83 XBH, 9.3% BB%, 15.7% SO%, .357 BA, .422 OBP, 567 SLG

This year, Ramirez has a .402 BABIP. That’s crazy high. Part of that is thanks to a career-best 22 percent line drive rate.

Last year, Ramirez hit .239 with runners in scoring position and drove in just 10 percent of all base runners. This year, he’s hitting .379 with runners in scoring position and has cashed in on 20 percent of his RBI opportunities. That’s well above the league average rate of 14 percent and trails only Ryan Ludwick at 21 percent as the hitter most likely to drive in a runner.

Defensively, Ramirez has made strides following his disastrous 2007 season. Bad reputations are difficult to shake, but he’s now posted two solid— if unspectacular—defensive seasons at short.

   Year    UZR/150     P/M
   2006      -6.0      -6
   2007     -20.9      -37
   2008      -0.6       3
   2009      2.4        6

Unfortunately, issues about his maturity have surfaced once again. He was publicly called out by Uggla after coming out of a game in early September with cramping in his left hamstring for his perceived lack of desire and commitment to the team. Other teammates privately felt Ramirez pulled himself from the game to protect his batting average. At the time, he was in an 0-14 slide at the plate and had lost 11 points off his batting average.

Since then, he’s hit in 11 of 13 games (.378/.474/.689) with four home runs.

The immediate future

Ramirez isn’t going to win the 2009 MVP Award. I think the world of the guy, but there’s no way he can beat out The Great Pujols. But with his batting average currently 24 points higher than Pujols, Ramirez is positioned to be the hitter who prevents the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

However, as things currently stand, he should come in second. This reminds me of early in Pujols’ career when he was stringing together great season after great season but found himself behind some guy named Bonds. Pujols eventually broke through, winning his first MVP in his fifth major league season in 2005.

The Marlins have won 11 of their last 20 and through the games of Sep. 16 are seven games behind Philadelphia in the NL East and four and a half games out of the wild card spot, trailing Colorado and San Francisco. The Marlins have six games remaining with the Phillies, so a sweep is needed if they have postseason aspirations. It’s a longshot at best. At some point, Ramirez may get his team to the playoffs. Barring a trade to a large market, postseason baseball seems like the only way Ramirez will ever gain the attention and notoriety he deserves.

The long-term future

Is it too soon to compare Ramirez to the great offensive shortstops of all time? Probably, although RJ Anderson did a nifty comparison among Ramirez and a couple of all-time greats. However, any comparison will likely be rendered moot when Ramirez shifts his defensive position sometime in the next couple of years. As great as his bat is, his glove just isn’t up to playing shortstop in the long term. While he’s improved defensively, the minute the Marlins have an adequate replacement lined up, they should shift him to third.

By that stage in his career, maybe we won’t be talking about him being among the greatest hitting shortstops or the greatest hitting third basemen ever… We may be talking about him being one of the best hitters of all time.

Do yourself a favor and try to catch a Marlins game before the season is over in a few weeks—maybe one of their games against the Phillies if you can only watch games that impact the divisional races. Ramirez is definitely worth the time.

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Comments

  1. Dave Studeman said...

    My biggest fun fact about Ramirez, and the reason his BABIP is so high, is that he’s batting over .400 on ground balls this year.  He has out-Ichiro’d Ichiro.

  2. aweb said...

    Why isn’t his glove up to playing shortstop long-term? He’s been improving, and for the last two seasons, is solidly average. Average fielding at shortstop is a good thing. Is there some reason why he can’t continue his current defense level for years to come? A bad reputation is apparently very hard to shake.

    How good would a SS prospect have to be to push Ramirez over to third?

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