Nobody can say the Boston Red Sox are lacking in stars heading into 2016. To rise from the depths of the AL East, all they need is for their stars to live up to their track records.
Now for the part where we cast the ol' side-eye at Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
Signed for a combined $183 million last winter, their first season in Boston was...not great. FanGraphs says Ramirez and Sandoval combined for a minus-3.8 WAR, making them arguably definitely the worst tandem in Major League Baseball. That leaves the Red Sox no choice but to hope for the best.
"We need them to produce, there's no doubt about that," Red Sox manager John Farrell said in December, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. "And talking to both guys, they're working extremely hard right now to get back to the years of performance that they've had in the past."
For now, the good news is that the projections expect Ramirez and Sandoval to get back on track. FanGraphs, for example, projects them for a combined 3.7 WAR in 2016. That's a 7.5-win swing in the right direction, and a notable contribution to a strong overall projection for the Red Sox.
But how, exactly, are Ramirez and Sandoval supposed to live up to these projections? Glad you asked. Let's take a look, shall we?
What Hanley Ramirez Must Do
The only impressive thing about Ramirez's 2015 season is the totality of its awfulness. His .249/.291/.426 batting line resulted in the worst offensive season of his career. He was also a liability on the bases and one of the worst defensive left fielders anyone's seen since, well, ever.
But it's a new season now, and Ramirez is getting a fresh start in more ways than one. Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald reported last month that Ramirez has lost some weight this offseason, and the 32-year-old former shortstop is confident about his move from left field to first base.
"I've always been an infielder, so it's going to be easy," Ramirez said recently, per Ricky Doyle of NESN.com. "I think I know more of the territory, and I'm going to feel more comfortable at first."
Should anyone else feel confident in Ramirez's ability to play first base? Given that he was a lousy shortstop before he was a lousy left fielder, not really. And remember, first base isn't easy. Right, Wash?
But because first base is the least important position on the defensive spectrum, the Red Sox could live with any characteristically poor defense from Ramirez if he produces on offense. To that end, there's at least room to hope that his weight loss will help him on the bases.
The big question, though, is if Ramirez can rediscover his power stroke. With his approach much more aggressive than it used to be, his ability to sting the ball is now his only real source of value as a hitter. And to show he still has it, he needs to prove not only that his weight loss isn't a problem, but also that he's past the injuries that killed his power in 2015.
Things started well enough for Ramirez last year. At the end of April, he was slugging .659 with 10 home runs. But then, on May 4, this happened:
That play only injured Ramirez's left shoulder badly enough to keep him out of action for a few days, but the effects seemed to linger for much longer. He was slugging .609 at the time he hurt his shoulder. For the rest of the season, he slugged just .372 and hit nine home runs.
According to the data, Ramirez's power dried up just as much as that decline suggests. After that shoulder injury, he hit more ground balls, made slightly more soft contact and a lot less hard contact:
|Hanley Ramirez Before and After Shoulder Injury|
|Through May 4||48.8||23.8||38.8|
|After May 4||50.4||24.4||28.7|
Granted, it wasn't just Ramirez's left shoulder that was hurting after May 4. As he told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald last August, he also spent a good chunk of the season battling injuries to his right shoulder and left hand.
How will anyone know if Ramirez is all better? At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, when the ball is jumping off his bat again. Speaking more specifically, it's also important for him to turn on fastballs again.
This chart from Brooks Baseball suggests that Ramirez lost the ability to do that, as he suddenly found himself hitting a notably higher percentage of fastballs to the opposite field:
Per Baseball Savant, this happened despite the fact that Ramirez was seeing a career-high number of inside fastballs in 2015. He also slugged a career-low .260 against those, driving few inside heaters to left field.
If Ramirez starts hitting the ball hard again? Good. If he does so while showing he can get around on fastballs again? Even better. That'll mean his power stroke is back and ready for duty.
For the Red Sox, that would be good enough. It would be nice if Ramirez went back to being the offensive dynamo he used to be, but him hitting enough bombs to account for what will presumably be lousy defense at first base would at least make him a solid regular. After 2015, even that would be quite the improvement.
What Pablo Sandoval Must Do
Hey, you can't blame that one Red Sox fan for asking the question. Sandoval had his worst offensive season in 2015, slashing just .245/.292/.366. He also rated as one of the game's worst baserunners and went from pretty good to very bad on defense. He was like Ramirez, except worse.
Boston's grand solution is the same one that's usually associated with Sandoval: weight loss. According to Mastrodonato's report, that's going well. After looking especially fluffy last spring, Sandoval has dropped 20 pounds this winter.
The 29-year-old's defense should be the most obvious beneficiary of that. Matthew Kory of FanGraphs didn't even need the context of Sandoval's weight loss to conclude that he's likely to improve on defense in 2016, but it's something that could erase last year's biggest shortcoming: range. According to ultimate zone rating, he saved fewer runs with his range than any other qualified third baseman.
But the real challenge concerns Sandoval's bat. On that front, it didn't help that the switch-hitting Sandoval struggled so much from the right side that he eventually gave up switch-hitting. But seemingly an even bigger problem was that his bat often looked slow.
The numbers back up the eye test, as Sandoval struggled to pull the ball and had a hard time making good contact. His hard-contact rate, in particular, was the worst of his career.
Regarding their offensive outlooks, this puts Sandoval in the same boat as Ramirez, save for another, more unique wrinkle.
Before 2015, Sandoval was the league's most notorious bad-ball hitter. He swung outside the strike zone more often than any other qualified hitter (minimum 3,000 plate appearances) between 2008 and 2014 and, according to Baseball Savant, he led or co-led baseball in out-of-zone hits in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
But in 2015, Sandoval stopped being a bad-ball bad boy. What he did against pitches in the strike zone was nothing out of the ordinary—and quite good—but Baseball Savant tells us that his ability to hit pitches outside the strike zone completely fell apart:
|Pablo Sandoval vs. In-Zone and Out-of-Zone Pitches|
|Year||In-Zone AVG||In-Zone SLUG||Out-of-Zone AVG||Out-of-Zone SLUG|
It's notable that Sandoval's chase rate in 2015 was the highest of any of his full seasons in the big leagues. But his rate of contact outside the zone was in line with his career rate, so it's not as if he was swinging and missing outside the zone too much. It would appear he simply lost his ability to make good contact against bad pitches.
Fixing that could go a long way toward fixing Sandoval's offensive problems as a whole. If he can do that while also turning his lighter build into improved range at third base, he stands to be an even more improved player than Ramirez.
So the Red Sox must hope, anyway. And no matter what happens, they at least have the comfort of knowing that it's not like Ramirez and Sandoval can get any worse in 2016, right?