Hanley has arrived

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On July 2, 2000, the Boston Red Sox signed a 16-year-old Dominican infielder named Hanley Ramirez. Five thousand, eight hundred, fifty-eight days later, on July 20, 2016, Hanley showed up to play.

July 20 was the day Ramirez hit three two-run home runs in a win against the Giants, his first monster performance for the Red Sox after so many with the Marlins and Dodgers. It’s been a career of extreme highs and lows for Boston’s current first baseman, with stops at several positions in cities across America. Through most of it, his smile and playful attitude have won over fans and teammates, but at times, fans have struggled to embrace his results.

After tearing up the low minors as a teenager and proving himself in Portland at 20 and 21, Ramirez skipped Pawtucket and played two games with the Red Sox in September 2005. That offseason, the young shortstop was traded to the Florida Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, two centerpieces of Boston’s 2007 championship team. It was a classic “everybody wins” trade, as Ramirez batted .300 with 148 home runs and 230 stolen bases in six and a half seasons in Miami. He finished second in MVP voting in 2009 and was probably the second-best player, next to Albert Pujols, in all of baseball over that time.

At the trade deadline in 2012, Ramirez and Randy Choate were traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitching prospects Nathan Eovaldi and Scott McGough. The Dodgers missed the playoffs as Ramirez completed a third consecutive season well below his standards, moving to third base and striking out a career-high 132 times. In 2013, Hanley was back to shortstop and back to form, batting .345 with 20 homers in just 86 games. He played in the postseason for the first time, contributing eight hits, including one home run, in a series win against Atlanta before struggling in an NLCS loss to St. Louis.

In 2014, after a series of injuries, Ramirez saw some of his power fade and started struggling defensively at shortstop. When he hit the free agent market after the season, most teams who inquired were shopping for a third baseman. The Red Sox were rumored to be in the bidding, but when they signed Pablo Sandoval to play third, it seemed Hanley would land elsewhere.

That’s when General Manger Ben Cherington made the gamble that probably cost him his job. Covetous of Hanley’s hitting ability, excited at the opportunity to bring home a native son, and convinced that left field at Fenway Park is the easiest position to master in all of baseball, Cherington committed $88 million over four years to his new left fielder. If one defensively-challenged slugger named Ramirez had thrived in the role for almost a decade, why couldn’t another?

He couldn’t.

In 2015, Hanley batted .249 with an inexcusable .291 on base percentage. It was the second time in his career that Ramirez graded out as a below-average hitter, but the first time, in 2011, he was a shortstop with a solid glove. In 2015, Ramirez was a left fielder with a glove made of lead, slathered in WD-40, and hidden under a mattress. Then the wicked witch of New England’s house fell on that mattress, so Hanley took the field barehanded and with his feet tied together.

According to Fangraphs, Ramirez cost the Red Sox 22.9 runs compared to an average fielder last season. Only the Padres’ Matt Kemp was worse, and no Red Sox player has done more damage in the field since Manny Ramirez cost the Sox 30.8 runs in 2006. Of course, Manny hit .325 with 35 home runs that year, contributing 2.9 Wins Above Replacement despite his grisly defense. Hanley didn’t hit or catch the ball, so Fangraphs calculates that he was 1.8 wins worse than a readily-available replacement player hanging out in AAA. If we value a win at $7.5 million, the going rate on the free agent market this year, the $19.75 million Hanley made last year represented an overpay by the Red Sox of almost $35 million.

That brings us back to 2016. Cherington is out as GM, Dave Dombrowski is in, and Hanley Ramirez is Boston’s regular first baseman. The defensive numbers don’t love him there either, and he’s made a few particularly costly plays, but after last year’s train wreck, he’s exceeded expectations with the glove. And while the July 20 game represented a major breakout, he’s also hitting .276 through Saturday’s game, with 19 home runs, 38 walks, a surprising seven stolen bases in nine tries.

It all adds up to something the Red Sox haven’t seen out of Hanley- positive value. Even if his 0.9 WAR don’t compare to what several younger Red Sox- and a certain elder statesman- have contributed, Hanley is a key member of a Red Sox team that’s contending for a playoff spot into August, and when things are going right, his joy is contagious.

Half his life after the Red Sox drafted Hanley Ramirez, he’s here. And he’s good. 

Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. For more baseball musings, follow him on Twitter @replevel.

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