The Imminent Hanley Ramirez Bounce Back

By: Brian Mangan

MLB Trade Rumors reported the following tidbit yesterday morning regarding Hanley Ramirez:

There’s “talk in the front office” that new Red Sox baseball chief Dave Dombrowski is trying to move Hanley Ramirez, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe.

Ramirez had a disappointing season for the Red Sox in 2016, and is owed a lot of money, so it is natural to think they might be interested in moving him. However, despite these well-publicized struggles, Ramirez is only turning 32 years old and posted 8.4 WAR over the two seasons prior. So you could imagine my surprise reading next excerpt:

Of course, trading Ramirez is probably easier said than done.  Just last week, five general managers told Cafardo that they wouldn’t take on Ramirez even if the Red Sox picked up the tab on half of his remaining salary.

Wait, what?

Ramirez is owed $22M per year from 2016-2018, with a vesting option for $22M in 2019. He’s not cheap, but at half that price, you’d have to think he would be a worthy gamble for another team willing to give him a blank slate.

For the fans of Red Sox Nation, this is a play they’ve seen before, as it was only a decade ago that their management tried to sell low on another Ramirez — Manny, who they placed on waivers after the 2003 season. All Manny Ramirez would go on to do over the next five years was hit .310/.408/.585, crush 180 home runs, and put up 22 WAR despite his defense.

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Hanley Ramirez Isn’t Finished

The fact of the matter is that, no matter what you think of his defense, Hanley Ramirez can flat-out hit. Ramirez has a career slash line of .296/.367/.494, good for a wRC+ of 129 over 1328 games. Even if you were only to look at the more recent past, since his superstar run ended in 2010, Hanley has still hit .271/.340/.457 over his last 568 games (which includes last year’s debacle).

Last year was also not quite as bad as you might think. Of course, his .291 OBP stands out like a sore thumb, but he still had power, knocking 19 home runs in an abbreviated season, that his overall wRC+ was still 89. Bad, but not disastrous. Furthermore, Ramirez had only a .257 BABIP, well below his .323 BABIP from the year before and his .327 career mark. Granted, Ramirez didn’t hit the ball with as much authority in 2015 as he has in his career, but he still had a 20.4% LD rate and 31.1% Hard Hit rate.

He was also significantly better before the All Star Break, hitting .274/.320/.497 before a shoulder injury slowed him. In August, Ramirez spoke publicly about the injury:

“This is not me,” Ramirez said. “I’m such a good hitter and I can’t look like that on the field. But I didn’t want to say anything because I wanted to play.” After hitting 10 homers in 82 at-bats in April, Ramirez has gone deep only nine times in his last 319 at-bats. Since the start of May, he’s batting .238 with a .367 slugging percentage.

The Red Sox took a big gamble and lost by putting Ramirez in the outfield, and once he was injured and the Red Sox fell out of contention the whole experiment became a circus act. No longer was Ramirez looked at as one of the great hitters of the decade (38.4 WAR since 2005) who merely needed health and time to get back on track.

That general misperception seems to have followed him into this offseason, memories of him hitting .345 (like he did in 2013) or hammering 10 home runs in a month (like he did in April) a distant memory in an emotionally-charged baseball town.


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Projecting Hanley’s Value

Steamer projects Ramirez will hit .284/.345/.475 next season, and if he’s healthy, it’s hard to disagree with their optimism.

Taking on Hanley’s contract is obviously a risk, but so are all big-money commitments to veteran players. Is a 32 year old Hanley Ramirez any more of a risk than a 35 year old Ben Zobrist, who will likely command a four year deal? Is he more of a risk than Chris Davis, who will likely receive a hundred million dollar deal but has only two seasons in his career where he has been worth more than 2.1 WAR? In Hanley’s case, there is still a significant amount of upside and if the Red Sox would be willing to eat a substantial portion of the money owed, the downside would be limited.

Although I generally loath doing a $/WAR analysis, doing one for Ramirez is illustrative in comparing him to the contracts that free agents might receive this winter.

Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs recently did an analysis of Ben Zobrist and estimated that, if you thought Zobrist would be a 3.5 WAR player next year, he would be worthy of a contract totaling somewhere around four years, $80 million. He also said that if Zobrist were only a 2.5 WAR player, that Zobrist’s contract should be somewhere around four years, $46 million.

Ramirez is projected to put up 2.2 WAR next season, but that projection is influenced by the disastrous defensive season he posted in left field this year. However, even if you were to take that 2.2 WAR projection at face value, this would be Ramirez’s $/WAR value:

  • 2016 (32): 2.2 WAR ($8M/WAR) = $17.6M
  • 2017 (33): 1.7 WAR ($8.4M/WAR) = $14.3M
  • 2018 (34): 1.2 WAR ($8.8M/WAR) = $10.5M
  • 2019 (35): 0.6 WAR ($9.3M/WAR) = $5.9M

According to this highly pessimistic starting point, Ramirez would still be projected to put up $42.4M worth of value over the three guaranteed years of the contract. The option for 2019 only vests if Ramirez has 1,050 plate appearances in 2017-2018 combined and passes a team physical, so it’s likely not going to kick in unless he’s healthy and performing well.

Again, this is not to endorse the $/WAR method – it is simply to demonstrate that Ramirez at a discount would be a much better value than media and sabermetric darling Ben Zobrist. If you were to begin that analysis again at a more reasonable starting point (and remember, Cameron started his analysis of Zobrist as a 3.5 WAR player at age 35 even though Zobrist only posted 2.1 WAR last season) and assume that Ramirez is closer to a 3 WAR player, you’d get the following values:hanley.0

  • 2016 (32): 3.0 WAR ($8M/WAR) = $24M
  • 2017 (33): 2.5 WAR ($8.4M/WAR) = $21M
  • 2018 (34): 2.0 WAR ($8.8M/WAR) = $17.6M
  • 2019 (35): 1.3 WAR ($9.3M/WAR) = $12.1M

By this estimate, Ramirez would be worth $74.6M over the remaining life of the contract, assuming the 2019 option vests.

Under the pessimistic view, if the Red Sox were to “pick up the tab on half of his remaining salary,” Ramirez would have almost $10 million in surplus value in the first three years of the deal. That number balloons to almost $30 million if you think Ramirez can bounce back to a modest 3 WAR player.

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I can’t explain necessarily why there is such a large disconnect between myself and these GMs who wouldn’t take him on a 3 year, $33M deal. Perhaps there are lingering concerns about Ramirez’s health, perhaps there are clubhouse rumblings about his demeanor, or perhaps they are more concerned than I am about finding Ramirez a position to play. Most likely, however, is that a deal where the Red Sox eat half the contract is not really on the table, and therefore Cafardo’s question didn’t warrant a serious answer.

Nonetheless, Ramirez presents a compelling case. He’s one of the most gifted hitters of this generation and he is far too young to be washed up. Does anyone really think Hanley Ramirez, eighteen months removed from hitting .346/.402/.638, might be out of baseball soon?

Ramirez hits for power, he draws walks, he doesn’t swing and miss too much. If I’m the Mets, I take Ramirez on a 3/33 deal in a heartbeat and spend the rest of my (alleged) Zobrist money elsewhere. Ramirez is a former shortstop and, although he was never elite defensively, guys who can fake it at shortstop can certainly play second base. Give Ramirez a second baseman’s mitt and tell him he doesn’t have to carry the team – tell him to go out there, stay healthy, and have fun.