…But I want the old Hanley back!
By Michael Jong
Earlier this morning, I pointed out that Hanley Ramirez should be in the running for National League MVP this season. Of course, now I’m going to tell you that despite that, I would rather have the old Hanley Ramirez from last season than this one.
Here’s where you might think “He’s a moron, Hanley’s been awesome this year! How could you want last year’s Hanley instead of this year’s? I’m not reading this stuff anymore!” Before you do that, note that that isn’t what I meant. If it was, I would not be making the argument that Hanley is having an MVP season so far. The numbers he’s put up are absolutely true of his production, in that I believe wOBA is a great individual run estimator for players and that it is measured based exactly off of what Hanley has done offensively this season. In other words, whatever Hanley has accomplished so far this year has been MVP-worthy.
So why wouldn’t I want an MVP-caliber version of a player? Aside from the fact that Hanley’s season last year was very good, I’d venture to say that Hanley’s performance this season is not repeatable and indicators of Hanley’s approach this season as opposed to last year point to an approach that is susceptible to problems if his luck turns the wrong way. In other words, I don’t think this version of Hanley Ramirez will be as consistently great as last year’s version.
Ramirez is sporting an absurd .412 BABIP (.408 if you check Baseball-Reference, which includes sac flies as well). Among qualifying players, that’s second only to David Wright of the Mets this season. You don’t need me to tell you that that .412 figure isn’t a strong indicator for future performance. In the three calendar years before this one, Hanley ranks 13th in baseball in BABIP, with a mark of .344. In other words, this is somewhat unusual territory for him.
Looking at Hanley’s batted ball profile, you can see that his line drive percentage is a bit higher at 20.2%, around his rookie season’s levels. However, he’s also hitting fly balls at a pace more akin to his 2007 season, ironically his next highest BABIP season. Conventional wisdom tells us that hitters get more hits on ground balls than they do on fly balls, and Hanley has done that to a bit of an extreme. While his average on fly balls and line drives in play has remained only slightly higher than his career averages this season, Hanley has a .408 batting average on ground balls, compared to the league average of .235 and a career average including this season of .321. At the amount of ground balls that Hanley has hit, it results in 26 hits more than average, most of them singles!
You’ll see that singles are exactly where Hanley is gaining his inflated batting average. This year, Hanley’s extra base hit percentage, measured as XBH/(balls in play + home runs) has remained static from last year; last season 15.1% of Hanley’s balls in fair territory went for extra bases, while this season 14.9% of those balls are turning into extra bases. Thus, the difference between last season’s .303 average and this season’s .363 average is all in singles. Sure enough, this season Hanley has 111 singles in 517 plate appearances, while last year, by August 7th, Hanley had accumulated 519 plate appearances and only 80 singles, a difference of 31 hits.
While his rate of singles has increased, Hanley’s home run power has dropped from last year. Last season Hanley hit 19.1% of his fly balls out of the park, compared to this season’s 12.1%, the lowest since his rookie year. While that extra base hit percentage hasn’t changed much, less of Hanley’s hits are getting out of the park and instead dropping for doubles. As a result, his adjusted ISO (adjusting triples into doubles, as triples are a measure of speed) has dropped to .206 from .227 at a similar point last year.
The decrease in power is significant, but small. In comparison, Hanley’s drop in patience is more troubling. At the 519 PA mark last season, Hanley posted an unintentional walk rate of 10.4%. This season, this has dropped significantly, down to 7.2%. This has been a direct result of his more aggressive approach at the plate this year, something I highlighted a while back here. So far this year, Hanley has swung at 71.6% of pitches in the zone and 25.2% of pitches out of the zone this season. In general, he’s increased his swing rate by almost 7% while opponents have thrown 2% less strikes to Hanley. Right now, thanks to his high contact rate (60% out of the zone, 89% in the zone), he’s made the most of those swings, at the expense of his walks and plate patience. However, as we know, patience results are far more stable over the course of a season than singles rates, and that is what I believe will benefit Hanley the most in the long run.
To recap, using B-R’s numbers for BABIP:
He’s swinging more out of the zone, swinging more often with the same amount of contact, walking less, his power is down slightly (though not out of range of his career numbers), and the difference in quality in this year compared to last year is a much higher singles rate off of a crazy batting average on ground balls, with no change to his infield single rate. If he performs with these numbers and regresses to his career BABIP numbers, we’d be looking at a .363 wOBA by my wOBA calculator, a drastic difference (28 runs) in offensive value.
Again, this isn’t to say that Hanley’s played poorly this season. His 2007 year mirrors this year in terms of plate patience, swing rate, and batted ball profile, and it was previously Hanley’s most valuable season by wOBA, so perhaps this is the best way for him to hit. His speed is such that his BABIP could be expected to be high just on infield base hits alone. But after showing some improvement in plate discipline last year, if Hanley could combine that with his natural hitting ability (read: natural high BABIP), he can really challenge as one of the best hitters in the game. Hanley has the chance to combine the plate patience and contact ability of Joe Mauer with the power of Chase Utley, he just needs to put it all together.
Maybe what I said was wrong. I don’t want 2008 Hanley, but rather 2008 and 2009 Hanley combined. I hope it’s not asking too much.