Two-thirds of an outfield has become whole. The travails of Hanley Ramirez.

Two Star Defenders and a Box of Rocks
by Jim Silva

    The 2015 version of the Red Sox outfield was pretty similar to what the 2016 Red Sox are running out there on a daily basis – one change really. But that one change should prove to be significant in moving the Sox back into contending in the AL East. Left field has historically been the spot to stash your big basher who maybe wasn’t the niftiest with the glove. Last year, Boston ran out arguably one of their worst defenders ever to play left field in Hanley Ramirez.
    How bad was Hanley? The converted shortstop failed the eye test and the stat test. It was more or less assumed that anyone athletic enough to play shortstop should have had an easy time making the shift to the easier part of the defensive spectrum. But last year’s experiment with the former Marlin, former Dodger, former Red Sox infielder was anything but easy. To be clear, Ramirez has always been a “bat first” shortstop so it wasn’t like they were moving a Gold Glove winner out there to ply his gilded glove. When he was in LA, it was widely understood that the Dodgers were conceding runs defensively at shortstop to get Hanley’s bat in the lineup. When his bat was special, the calculus was defensible. And it was special in 2013 and 2014 when he posted 5.1 and 4.6 oWAR (offensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) respectively. With numbers like that even when your dWAR (defensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) is negative you come out ahead. As a bonus, 2013 was actually a solid defensive season for Ramirez with a DRS of 3. The three seasons before that had Ramirez costing his team 17, 11, and 18 runs with his weak defense, so being neutral or even a little above neutral is a great thing by comparison. In Ramirez’ last campaign as the Dodgers shortstop he regressed toward his former defensive crapaliciousness costing the Dodgers nine runs. If Kobe Bryant had been a Dodgers starting pitcher there would have been an article in the LA Times talking about how Kobe had forced the Dodgers to let Ramirez sign with the Red Sox.
    So jump ahead to last season and that early spring optimism about how Hanley would certainly be able to make the move to left. Optimism soon turned to face palming as Ramirez put on a display of fecklessness that inspired this highlight film by Joon Lee on Twitter.

In limited time, due to injury, Hanley cost the Red Sox 19 runs with his “glove work”. What of his special bat work? Well, in the first half he hit .274/.320/.497 – nice power numbers at least. And the second half? Ramirez hit all 19 of his home runs before the break. It seems pretty clear that his second half was marred by various injuries as he batted .164/.190/.255 in August and then his season was done, as was his god-awful career as an outfielder. But enough of 2015! The other two gents who graced Fenway in 2015, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are back and they both bring with them special gloves.
        Jackie Bradley Jr. is now patrolling center field as the starter instead of splitting time in all three outfield spots as the Phillips (in honor of the late Oakland A’s player, not the strange-headed screwdriver). 2015 saw Bradley save his team eight runs in the equivalent of half a season. He has always had the good glove rep ever since he was taken in the first round in 2011 out of college. Until last season, his bat had always been too costly to run him out there on a regular basis. With regular playing time Bradley’s hitting became an asset with a second half slash line of .267/.352/.539.
    Bradley Jr. only had 1376 plate appearances in the minors, the equivalent of under three full seasons, and he generally dominated with the slash line of a premier leadoff hitter with doubles power (.294/.391/.460). But starting with 107 plate appearances in 2013, Bradley looked like he was unable to make the offensive transition to the majors. In his first 822 plate appearances his slash line was a disappointing .215/.289/.348. Last year’s apparent breakout second half was probably just in time to give Bradley one more chance at the starting job. His elite glove will always earn him chances at a spot on the bench, but unless he can hit the Red Sox will move off of him and give one of their youngsters a chance.
    One of the most exciting young baseball players in the majors is Mookie Betts. Playing as a 22 year old last year he put up a 4.9 WAR season, garnered MVP votes, and improved on a really good half season from the year before. He saved his team 10 runs with his glove after saving 4 runs the year before. Betts hits for power, gets on base, hits for average and steals bases at a high rate nabbing 21 in 27 attempts last year. He hits righties and lefties well, both for power and average. Probably most terrifyingly to opponents, he was even better in the second half than in the first half.
Plate Appearances
Average
On Base
Slugging
First Half
378
0.277
0.328
0.464
Second Half
276
0.311
0.359
0.500
The Red Sox had the luxury of moving Betts from center to right this season to take advantage of his strong, accurate arm (he saved 4 runs in 2015 with his throwing alone). Remember that Betts is a converted second baseman so he is still (unbelievably) learning to play the outfield. He is already good enough to annually compete for a Gold Glove in right and his bat will put him in the conversation for MVP every year, especially if the Sox contend.
    An outfield with Bradley in center and Betts in right with not-Hanley in left will be better than what the Red Sox rolled out last year, and will help them contend in the AL East. So who will not-Hanley be in 2016? The other outfield spot was filled by many different people last season. Super expensive right-fielder Rusney Castillo – a 2014 signee from Cuba – made a lot of outs from the batter’s box in 2015. The Red Sox ran him out there 80 times (289 plate appearances) to see him post a slash line of .253/.288/.359. While his second half splits are better than his first half, they are still not good enough to warrant giving him regular playing time in spite of his excellent defense. At 28 he might be what you see now although often international signees take time to adjust to the differences in the American game, not to mention living in a new country and speaking a different language. There are of course $70+ million (the contract the Red Sox gave him to sign) reasons to give Castillo every chance to succeed. He is a talented athlete but the list of failed athletic baseball prospects is long and covered with broken glass – or maybe strikeouts.
    The Red Sox started the season with a platoon of Brock Holt and Chris Young. The right-handed Young was supposed to mostly face lefties as his career splits are pretty clear. His slash line against righties is .224/.292/.410 in 3287 plate appearances while his slash line against southpaws is a robust .263/.362/.475. Young used to be a stellar glove man but has declined noticeably in the last three to four seasons to the point where he is at best, neutral in the field. At 32, Young has to crush lefties to take up a roster spot for much longer, and it is unlikely the Red Sox will keep him around past this season since they have the money and resources to go get someone who can play everyday.
    Holt’s best skill is his ability to play everywhere. As a left-fielder he is good enough to start but not good enough to star. He carries an average glove out to left, which will be a huge asset when compared to poor, besieged Hanley, but his bat is fairly mundane. His 162 game average in the majors is not what you’d expect from a left-fielder – especially the four home runs part. He will hit for a respectable average and get on base at a decent clip. His slugging comes primarily from the 30 or so doubles he will hit, but he strikes out too much for a guy with Kuiperian (Duane) home run power.
    To date, Mookie and Jackie are off to excellent starts. Betts has traded some walks for home runs so his slugging is up while his on-base percentage is down. He is playing excellent defense as is the guy to his right, Jackie Bradley Jr.. JBJ has had an excellent first half, far eclipsing his best numbers and is beginning to see people talk about him as a superstar. A half a season does not a superstar make, but combined with his solid half last year this looks like real progress. If it is, then the Red Sox are being rewarded mightily for their patience.
Andrew Benintendi is moving quickly through the minors. He’s a center-fielder with good speed, extra base pop and a fancy minor league slash line of .315/.413/.573 in his first 241 at-bats. He is off to a good start at high-A and if he is moved aggressively could be ready next year. With Benintendi still a good bit away, the Sox have employed a number of players in left. Holt, Young, and Blake Swihart who the Sox have given the most playing time, have all spent time on the DL, so they have been running Bryce Brent and Ryan LaMarre out there. Both outfielders are 27, but profile differently. LaMarre is known more for his glove and his speed, but has put together a solid start to the season at triple-A with the bat as well. LaMarre hasn’t put it together in very short auditions in the minors and won’t be given much of a chance in Boston. Brent has some pop, but hasn’t shown enough to get much of a chance to stick either. He would probably be a 10 to 15 home run guy with a low batting average if given 600 plate appearances. These are the Red Sox, and they are competing for a championship, so there is little chance either man sticks with the big club once Holt, Swihart, and Young make their way back off the DL. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Sox make a move for an upgrade in left if their other three more palatable options are slow to come back. As for Rusney Castillo, he is 28 and stinking it up at Pawtucket, showing no power and no ability to get on base, so at this point he is looking like a big mistake as opposed to a possible solution to left field. It got so bad this year that the Sox took Castillo off the 40 man roster, exposing him to the waiver wire and nobody claimed him. He probably needs to go to another team where he might find a coach interested in straightening out his swing, but his giant contract makes that unlikely.
    If Rusney Castillo can fight his way back to Fenway (by improving his ability to get on base), the Red Sox would have a stellar defensive outfield and would be more versatile with Brock Holt moving around all the time. At this point that is Ben Cherrington wish-casting, but the Red Sox have the money and the only acceptable outcome to the season is a deep playoff run. The Red Sox are not likely to sit still and see what happens for too long if they think they can nab a left-fielder, keep Young on the bench as a pinch-hitter against lefties, and use Holt as a swiss army knife kinda player. If they end up sticking with Holt in left, it will at least be a huge improvement over last season, and less time spent face-palming is always a good thing, right?

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s