As the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins kick off the 2012 regular season tonight at 7:00 pm EST on ESPN, much of the focus is on what's new for the fish -- the name, stadium, manager, unis and roster among them. But a holdover moving to a new position, Hanley Ramirez, may be the most important Marlin of all.
The shortstop-turned third baseman had a down year in 2011, slowed by a bad back and a left shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery in September. Ramirez's OPS+ plummeted from 139 from 2008-10 to just 95. Those ailments put a big dent in Hanley's power numbers, as his slugging percentage declined from .497 from '08 to '10 to .379 in 2011.
The reason for Ramirez's power outage was two-fold: He hit fewer fly balls, and when he did loft a pitch, it didn't travel near as far.
From 2008-10, Ramirez's 46% ground ball rate was just slightly above the 44% big league average. Take a look at his ground ball percentage by pitch location over that time frame, and then the MLB average:
Ramirez grounded out more often on low-and-away pitches (68%) than the average hitter (61%), but otherwise he hit a normal number of choppers. Now, look at his ground ball rate by pitch location in 2011:
Hanley's ground ball rate on low-and-away stuff climbed to a startling 82%, highest among all MLB hitters. Plus, his grounder rate on middle and high pitches increased from 41% to 47%. Overall, Ramirez hit a ground ball 52% of the time he put a ball in play. That's Jason Bartlett/Jamey Carroll territory.
When Ramirez did manage to get the ball in the air, he rarely ripped it. He lost nearly 20 feet on his fly balls hit, with his average fly ball distance dropping from 277 feet to 259 feet (the MLB average is about 270 feet). Most of that decline came on pitches thrown up and away:
Tonight, you'll hear plenty about psychedelic center field sculptures, tape-delay diatribes to come from Ozzie and new duds apparently inspired by the cinematic classic BASEketball. Keep an eye on Hanley's swing, though -- it could be the difference between a run at a playoff spot and a fourth-place finish in the NL East.