Not that long ago, Hanley Ramirez was on a short list of the very best players in all of baseball. The mercurial talent once had a three-year span from ages 23 to 25 in which he hit .325/.398/.549, providing the Marlins with over 20 WAR in the process according to FanGraphs. Coming into the 2011 season, the then 27-year-old shortstop boasted a career .905 OPS with 124 home runs and 196 stolen bases on his already bulging resume. He had signed what seemed to be a team friendly deal worth $70 million over six years just a few years prior. In short, it appeared the Marlins had a franchise icon in the making, a player who was already great and just getting ready to enter his prime.
Then came the drop in production. While a slight decline had already been hinted at in 2010 when Hanley “slumped” to an .853 OPS and just 4.6 WAR, that turned out to be just the beginning rather a slight aberration. While Ramirez has never been rated highly with the glove, at least it was a premium position he wasn’t playing particularly well, and when your shortstop is slugging .550, you don’t mind a few miscues in the field. You also don’t mind a few attitude issues, apparently, but the situation changes dramatically when the moody centerpiece of your offensive attack suddenly stops what previously seemed to be a spirited sprint straight to Cooperstown and starts idling along instead, kicking a baseball or two into left field along the way.
Since the 2010 season ended (and really before it began, since that was the beginning stages of the drop-off in hindsight), every part of Han-Ram’s game has suffered. The player that swiped 102 bases in his first two full seasons has barely surpassed that amount over the subsequent five. He hit .243/.333/.379 a season ago, a campaign riddled with various physical maladies (back, shoulders, legs) that saw him appear in just 92 games, contributing a paltry 1.3 WAR. He’s bounced back slightly this year (.255/.330/.426) and managed to stay on the field more, but obviously we’re still not seeing anything close to vintage Hanley Ramirez. Considering we’re talking about a player with tons of talent who should be performing at peak levels, you have to wonder why this is happening.
There are positive signs. For one thing, Ramirez is hitting line drives about as often as he always has (18.3% in 2012 as well as in his career), and that number is up noticeably after lagging the last few seasons. He’s hitting less ground balls than he has in the past few seasons as well, and that could be a good sign for a player that has the slugging ability of El Nino (why he has that nickname is not something I’m going to bother looking into); that number is also looking more in line with his career totals. Furthermore, a speedy player with a career .333 BABIP has no obvious reason — other than bad luck — to be sitting at totals like .275 and .284 respectively in 2011 and 2012. So maybe things will continue to improve from here, especially given the much heralded “change of scenery” aspect. For a player who’s still just 28 and features the kind of numbers Hanley has, it’s certainly a possibility.
And yet it doesn’t seem, at least on an instinctual level, that we’ll ever see that same player again. As a Dodger, Ramirez isn’t exactly putting up totally different numbers. He’s hitting for average and working a few walks, but he has all of six extra-base hits — including just one home run — in his first 84 plate appearances with the team. Obviously he’s not exactly playing most of his games in a hitter-friendly environment, but he’s never had that luxury, so that’s no excuse. He’s drawn a lot of attention over the years, especially lately, for being something of a head case, but can a bad attitude really explain this decline in productivity? There are plenty of surly yet talented players littered throughout the professional sports world, and it’s not like having a positive mindset directly correlates to success. A 28-year-old with Hanley’s talent should be able to hit whether he’s pissed off or not, quite frankly. For what it’s worth, he said all the right things upon being traded away from the Marlins, and didn’t at all seem to fit the entitled superstar persona he’s occasionally made out to have. Maybe his level-headed statements about appreciating the franchise that gave him his start in the majors was just for effect, but it seemed pretty genuine to me. I’m not sure I put much stock into the personality department in regards to his disappointing past few seasons, all things considered.
Then, I guess, you could bring up the injuries. The normally durable Ramirez did deal with a lot last year, as mentioned above, and maybe it altered his game more than anyone knows. Maybe he’s still dealing with some physical complications that have forced him into being a lesser player than he used to be. But maybe we’re simply looking at an extremely rare case: a player who begins his career at a very young age by making an incredible splash (appropriate, considering his fish-themed former team), turns into an outstanding player quickly, and then burns out in what should have been his prime, never recovering that former spark again. That’s not a common situation for sure; in fact, it would have to be almost a nonexistent one, but the longer he fails to return to his pre-2010 levels, the more likely that scenario becomes.
As good as Hanley is (was), his career path doesn’t look quite as promising now. He’s been moved off the position that doesn’t require tons of offensive production and moved to one that demands it instead, and if you trust defensive metrics at all, he’s not even any better at third than he was at shortstop; that’s saying something considering his reputation has always come from offense. If Hanley’s ever going to return to the form he showed in 2007-2009, he’s going to have to start hitting again, more than ever before if he stays at the hot corner. That’s not to suggest he can’t remain a useful big league component as is, but even that would represent a major disappointment for a player who started off his career with such a bang.