Hanley was a lo-fi J2 signing out of the Dominican Republic by Boston during the waning days of the Bill Clinton administration. He signed for $20,000 and spent the next couple of years in the Dominican academy before raking in his stateside debut at age 18 and punching his ticket into our Top 40 Prospects that year (seriously, click that link, it’s a fun time capsule). His numbers took a step back in full-season ball in 2003, though he swiped 36 bags and posted quality contact rates while continuing to profile as a shortstop. His prospect breakout came in 2004, when he ripped a .314/.369/.436 line across High-A and Double-A, while performing as one of the youngest regulars at each stop. 2005 saw his big-league debut, but it also saw his numbers stagnate in the upper minors, questions surface about his effort level, and ultimately his inclusion as the centerpiece in a blockbuster trade from Boston to Miami. He broke camp with the Marlins the following spring, and never really looked back, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2006, garnering top-11 MVP votes in each of the next three seasons, and winning the NL batting title in 2009.
The effort and character questions (fairly or not) never quite got put to bed, and they’ve dogged him pretty much throughout his career. And so have injuries. After an injury-plagued 2010 and poor performance out of the gate in 2011, they pushed him to Los Angeles, where he rebounded reasonably in the second half before reminding everybody of the enormity of his raw talent in 2012 with an absurd 86-game run that saw him go .345/.402/.638 to reestablish himself as a fantasy force. Two wildly underwhelming seasons marred by yet more character concerns followed, first in Los Angles and then Boston amid consecutive seasons of position changes, before he finally, mercifully landed at first base last year and reinvented himself (again) as a middle-of-the-order slugger en route to just his second 30-homer season in a 12-year career. He currently sits on a career line of .295/.366/.495 line with a .301 TAv in over 6,300 big-league plate appearances.
What Went Right in 2016
It’s awfully tough to evaluate Ramirez’s offensive production through a linear lens, as he’s been all over the place with regard to batted ball profile, approach, and swing mechanics in the course of his career. He’s also notoriously and wildly streaky, to where gleaning developmental patterns can be a tricky endeavor.
It is certainly notable, however, that after overhauling his pre-launch mechanics a good bit between his down 2015 and the beginning of 2016, he again tweaked his setup mid-season, this time with spectacular results. While his contact rates and exit velocity remained largely consistent pre- and post-tweak, the average launch angle he produced increased dramatically beginning in June, and he went on to hit 22 of his 30 home runs in the second half while adding about 160 points of slugging and ISO to his first-half ledger.
He continued to generate all-fields contact, proving especially adept at taking fastballs the other way with authority. Of those 30 dingers, nine went to the opposite field (with another five going out to dead center). He’s a lethal hitter against secondary offerings, especially changeups, and he took things next level in 2016, crushing cambios to the tune of a .781 slugging percentage. He also got more patient, which is something he’ll do from time to time; his walk rate doubled from its bottomed-out 4.9 percent rate in 2015 as his swing rate dropped by over three percentage points.
Toss in nine steals in a fleeting nod to his former thievery skills, along with a contextual assist from Boston’s best-in-baseball run-scoring offense, and Hanley produced $22 in standard mixed-league value, which tied for sixth-best among first basemen and 33rd among hitters at large.
What Went Wrong in 2016
With added bulk since his move from the left side of the infield prior to the 2015 season, Hanley’s bat speed has declined some, and his Z-Contact has backslid in each of the past couple seasons. After swinging and missing at less than 10 percent of in-zone hard pitches in his career, that number jumped to about 13 and a half last season, while his overall production against fastballs sagged relative to his career averages – albeit within the whims of small-sample fluctuation, to where we can’t definitively claim a trend in progress. His contact rate overall plummeted to the deepest depths of his career, down to 77.5 percent, and that drove a spike in strikeout rate of about three percentage points.
What to Expect in 2017
Injuries have knocked his production down and/or out for substantial chunks of time throughout his career, and most recently a shoulder injury in 2015 sapped his power output. But when healthy(ish) he has maintained a high level of production into his thirties, and with his bulked up strength the power potential should remain comfortably intact for the next couple seasons. The Red Sox lineup obviously lost a huge piece this off-season, and smart money suggests a modicum of built-in regression for the young bats around him, which could modestly affect his counting stats. A .280-plus average, 25-plus homers, somewhere north of 180 R+RBI, and a handful of steals feels about right for a baseline projection in another reasonably-full season, though the built-in injury risk is a primary factor in him rating towards the bottom of the four-star tier instead of a couple slots higher.
The Great Beyond
Hanley is 33 now, and the growing swing-and-miss concerns discussed above are the red flag type over the longer haul. He is, however, under contract with Boston for a lot of money—$22 million-per-year—through 2018, with an eminently achievable vesting clause for 2019 that kicks in if he eclipses 1,050 plate appearances combined between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, culminating in a career-worst rate last season. He’s positioned as that kind of quintessential win-now target for those in dynasty leagues, where his production should make for a relatively stable investment over the next couple seasons. And in re-draft formats his current ADP of 86 overall and tenth among first basemen he sits as a solid value pick for those who elect to forgo investment in a top-tier option at the position.
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