The Los Angeles Dodgers have many stars. The Los Angeles Dodgers don’t have a star third baseman, at least not one that is slated to start third base this year. The Dodgers *do* have many good defensive shortstops, and none of them is starting at shortstop. The weirdest thing is that it might all make sense, at least for now.
Hanley Ramirez hasn’t been a great defensive shortstop, at least not in the major leagues. He hasn’t ever added a win of fielding plus positional value, and his best UZR/150 at the position was +0.9, in 2008. That was a long time ago, and since — only three shortstops have played 1000 innings at the position over the last three years and been worse with the glove than Hanley Ramirez.
It might cause some consternation, then, to discover that a good defensive “system” shortstop (Luis Cruz) is slated to play third base next to Ramirez in 2013. Cruz only has five hundred major league innings at short, but he’s never had a season in which he was a minus-fielding shortstop. Say what you want about Dee Gordon‘s defense — Bullpen Banter’s Steve Fiorindo said he “wasn’t worried about” Dee Gordon‘s defense due to his athleticism which should lead to “plenty of range and arm” — but there are other shortstop types on the roster too: Juan Uribe, Nick Punto, Justin Sellers, and Jerry Hairston, Jr to say the least. By UZR/150, all of them are better-than-scratch defenders at shortstop that have had better-than-scratch defensive seasons at the position more recently than Ramirez.
Ceding double-digit runs at shortstop when you’ve got multiple scratch or better defenders as options on the current roster seems like folly.
But there are the particulars of Ramirez’s defense. Baseball Info Solutions breaks down each infield defender on balls straight to them and to their left and right. To his right, Hanley had been terrible for two straight years before joining the Dodgers: -14 and -21 at shortstop. That was in opposition to decent numbers up the middle (-2 and +2) and good work to his left (+1 and +7).
Admittedly, there are two ways to look at these numbers if you are his acquiring team. You could think that moving him to third base essentially eliminates the need for range to his right. Or you could put a great defensive third baseman next to him that could get to some of those balls to Ramirez’s right.
Obviously we know which path the Dodgers decided to go down. Since Cruz was best to his left and straight on (+4 and +6 compared to +1 to his right), it seems to have worked out fine. Ramirez went from double-digit bad to his right to -7 with Cruz as his partner. And the team as a whole was 15th in the league in UZR/150 (0.9) and BIS’ Defensive Runs Saved (+4), with the fifth-lowest BABIP allowed (.283). There’s no evidence, at least, that a massive defensive shortcoming was part of the team’s failing.
And there might have been benefits to the decision to put Ramirez at short.
Hanley Ramirez hasn’t taken well to criticism, seemingly. In 2010, Fredi Gonzalez pulled him from a game for lack of hustle, and when given a chance to be contrite, the shortstop responded with “It’s his team. He can do whatever he f——- wants.” When asked to cut his hair and change his style, Ramirez also bristled. He once took his manager to task for failing to retaliate when the player was hit. Ozzie Guillen had harsh words once the shortstop was gone, too — but to be fair, he said the same when Ramirez was still in town.
Most of these comments came during the star shortstop’s worst years. There’s a chicken and the egg thing going on though — was he performing poorly before he was criticized, or did the criticism keep him from righting the ship? Joe Girardi is not the softest of managers, but he coached Ramirez through his best seasons, and Ramirez once tearfully thanked him for it. But Ramirez might have been a better player, and more athletic, those days.
Now approaching thirty, Ramirez is once again negotiating a relationship with a new staff. Perhaps they thought a kinder, gentler approach would get the most out of their new shortstop. When asked about defense and his team’s acquisition, Dodger skipper Don Mattingly said “He can do this.” And small samples aside, Ramirez responded with better offense (8% better) and defense with the Dodgers.
The Dodgers might be losing a few runs here or there due to Hanley Ramirez playing at shortstop despite his bad range to his right. With a good defender to his right, though, that negativity is mitigated. And by showing him a little positivity, maybe the Dodgers will reap the best Ramirez has to offer.