While his teammates made five errors and gave up 20 hits Friday night in a performance that left them more suited for witness protection than nickname jerseys, Ramirez idled on the bench. Even when he replaced first baseman Mitch Moreland, who pitched a scoreless top of the ninth in a 16-3 mauling by the Baltimore Orioles, Ramirez didn’t bat in the bottom of the inning. Despite being out of the game, Chris Young still came to the plate, a mistake that went unchecked but was later acknowledged by Red Sox manager John Farrell.
Indeed, if Ramirez hadn’t stayed for the game, it scarcely would have been noticed.
It’s difficult for a middle-of-the-order slugger to be so invisible. Lately, though, Ramirez has hid in plain sight even when he plays. In his past eight games, he’s 5-for-31 (.161) with three extra-base hits and nine strikeouts. He’s 13-for-63 (.206) with seven extra-base hits and 19 strikeouts this month. And since the All-Star break, he’s 28-for-131 (.213) with 12 extra-base hits and 34 whiffs.
Somehow, the Red Sox have won, despite Ramirez’s play. They might have to continue doing so too. Ramirez typically warms up with the weather, but considering it’s nearly Labor Day and he still hasn’t gotten on a roll, it’s fair to wonder if he ever will this season.
Ramirez’s disappearing act has left the Red Sox somewhat mystified. Last season, he hit 30 home runs, slugged .505 and drove in 111 runs by using the entire field. This year, all but 13 of his hits have been pulled to left field or hit up the middle. And while he took fluid, easy right-handed swings last season, his cuts have gotten so big and violent that his helmet often comes flying off his head.
“I don’t know if that’s his barometer of effort, a helmet flying, but I agree with you. We see it as well,” Farrell said. “For players, when they’re relaxed, when they’re fluid, it seems to happen easier for them. When a player ramps up the effort level, they’re not as consistent. I think there’s a ramp-up of effort that might have caused him to miss some pitches on the plate.”
Maybe Ramirez is trying too hard to be David Ortiz, his mentor and big brother for so many years and his teammate for the past two seasons. Or perhaps he’s compensating for the pain and soreness in both shoulders that has plagued him for most of the season.
“What the root of it is, I’m not sure if he’s trying to generate more bat speed because he’s been dealing with the shoulders, to start the swing earlier,” Farrell said. “You see maybe a higher number of checked swings that are called strikes, where he can’t hold up. That’s a hitter committing early and going to get a pitch, and pitch recognition might be a little late. I don’t know that it’s about replacing someone [Ortiz].”
Regardless, the Red Sox realize their offense will be far more consistent if Ramirez starts hitting. It was telling that Young, who typically fares better against lefties, started in place of Ramirez on Friday night with Orioles right-hander Jeremy Hellickson on the mound. And Farrell indicated he would prefer to rotate players through the designated hitter spot in September as a way of keeping them fresh, which would cause Ramirez to lose more at-bats down the stretch.
Ramirez’s shoulders appeared to be improving in July, when he was finally able to tolerate playing first base. He also seemed to be taking more controlled swings, at least in batting practice, leaving the Red Sox optimistic that a hot streak wasn’t far away.
But there have been only fits and starts. Take Monday night, for example, when Ramirez caught a slider from Cleveland Indians right-hander Mike Clevinger and drove it out to left field. Thinking back to that swing, Farrell said, “We’ve got to get more of that.” Sure enough, Ramirez got two hits Tuesday night.
Then, he went hitless during the final two games in Cleveland, striking out six times in eight at-bats.
“The puzzling thing for me is, when you watch BP — and we’ve talked about this with [shortstop Xander Bogaerts] and other players — it’s taking the BP into the game,” Farrell said. “Easier said than done. But whether it’s added effort, emotional spike, whatever you want to describe it, all of a sudden there’s maybe the impetus or the urge to try to do more, and then you’re not as fluid and repeat the swing as consistently.
“When he’s at his best, he’s gap-to-gap, driving the ball to right-center field. That’s when he’s got his best plate coverage. That’s when his swing is seemingly at his most optimal. That’s just my evaluation.”
Pretty soon, Farrell will have to draw some conclusions. If second baseman Dustin Pedroia is able to come back from his knee problems and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. from a sprained left thumb, the Red Sox will have some difficult decisions to make about what their best lineup looks like before the postseason.
It’s hard to believe Ramirez wouldn’t be part of it. But if he doesn’t start to make his presence felt more often, the Red Sox will have to consider their alternatives.