FORT MYERS, Fla.—More than half a year later, it’s still there. The shadow of Manny Ramirez has not yet lifted from the Red Sox.
The Hall of Fame slugger is now long gone but clearly not forgotten, at least among some parties among both the Red Sox and their followers. Certain episodes notwithstanding, the slugger’s performance during his almost eight years in Boston was so otherworldly that his absence is felt.
David Ortiz, for one, seems to feel exposed by the fact that the man who offered him lineup protection is no longer there. The Sox’ failed pursuit of Mark Teixeira this offseason—and decision not to pursue another free-agent bat—led Ortiz to sound a note of concern upon his arrival in spring training.
“Whenever you can add a slugger to your lineup, it does nothing but help,” said Ortiz. “I know we missed Manny last year. Who’s your cleanup hitter? Whenever your cleanup hitter goes away from your lineup, it hurts you.”
In some ways, Ortiz can be forgiven that sentiment. His partnership with Ramirez was incredibly fruitful. And last year, following the trade of his longtime lineup partner, Ortiz seemed at times to see few pitches to crush, playing into a streak of 19 straight games in which he didn’t homer (matching the longest drought of his Red Sox career).
All the same, while Ortiz’ concern is perhaps understandable, it’s based on specious logic, playing more into “The Myth of Manny” than what actually happened when the slugger was and was not a member of the Red Sox last year. If the reality was different than the perception of Ortiz and others, the rumors of the Red Sox’ offensive demise in the coming season may be greatly exaggerated.
So, what actually took place last year, and what does it mean going forward?
THE RED SOX OFFENSE WAS BETTER WITHOUT RAMIREZ THAN WITH HIM
Ramirez played his final game as a Red Sox on July 30, a 9-2 loss to the Angels that marked the eighth time that month that Boston had scored two or fewer runs in a game. The team’s record sat at 61-48 (.560), and the offense had averaged 4.94 runs per game, eighth in the majors.
With Ramirez gone and Jason Bay in Boston, the Sox went an American League-best 34-19 (.642) and averaged 5.79 runs a game, most in the majors over the last two months. Those numbers came despite the continued injury issues for Ortiz, as well as the absence of both Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew for significant stretches of time.
The event defied logic. How could the Sox—especially while playing short-handed—possibly improve in the absence of Ramirez?
The task was made easier by the fact that Ramirez hadn’t been performing up to his Hall of Fame standards. Though he was the best player in baseball once he landed with the Dodgers, he had performed at a level that, while All-Star caliber, was not superhuman as a member of the Sox.
Ramirez hit .299 with a .398 OBP and .529 slugging mark, as well as 20 homers and 68 RBIs, as a member of the Sox. Those numbers, while good, could be replaced.
“What Manny did when he went to L.A., nobody’s going to do that. He wasn’t doing that with us. He was good, but he wasn’t off the charts,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “We viewed it that we were trying to improve as a team, not necessarily in one area, but trying to improve as a team.”
Indeed they did. The Sox enjoyed better production from both the cleanup spot of the lineup and from the position of left field after the departure of Ramirez than before.
- With Ramirez, Boston’s cleanup hitters amassed a line of .293/.391/.513 with 22 homers and 76 RBIs.
- From August 1 through the end of the regular season, Red Sox cleanup hitters had a line of .324/.423/.604 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs.
- Through the trading deadline, the team’s left fielders hit .275/.346/.433/.779 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs. (It is worth remembering, however, that Ramirez spent much of that time as the D.H. with David Ortiz on the sidelines.)
- Red Sox left fielders in the Post-Manny Era had a line of .303/.381/.510 with nine homers and 39 RBIs.
Clearly, both Jason Bay (who assumed Ramirez’ vacated spot in left field) and Kevin Youkilis (who became the primary cleanup hitter down the stretch) played huge roles in that development.
“I think a lot of people were surprised with the amount of runs we scored after Manny was gone,” said Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan. “I wasn’t surprised. I knew the type of player that Jason Bay was. I had him for a little bit in San Diego. I knew what he was going to bring to our offense.”
As for Youkilis, while there has been a school of thought that he represents a less than ideal cleanup hitter, it’s difficult to find fault with his presence at that spot. He ranked among American League leaders in most major statistical categories, including cleanup-worthy areas like slugging (.579, 3rd), OBP (.390, 6th), OPS (.958, 4th), RBIs (115, 4th) and extra-base hits (76, 4th).
“That was kind of the impression: ‘Oh, it’s Kevin Youkilis hitting fourth.’ Kevin Youkilis drove in 115 runs with 29 homers,” Magadan said. “If you look at the numbers, they didn’t hold true with the perception.”
OPPONENTS DIDN’T PITCH AROUND ORTIZ; HE JUST COULDN’T HANDLE THE HEAT
The great concern for Ortiz has always been that, without Ramirez or a similar slugger batting behind him, the pitches to hit will be few and far between. In some ways, that fear seemed to come to fruition last year.
Before the trade deadline, Ortiz walked 35 times in 272 plate appearances, or once every 7.8 trips to the dish. After, he took 35 free passes in just 219 plate appearances, or one for every 6.3 times he batted.
Yet most of the spike in Ortiz’ walks occurred in August. By September, pitchers had adjusted to two realities: because of his injured wrist, they could attack Ortiz; and because of Youkilis’ excellence, they’d better not pitch around Ortiz to put a runner on first for the top Sox power hitter of last season.
From September 5 through the end of the year, Ortiz walked just six times, averaging one jog to first for every 14.0 plate appearances.
“As a hitter, you have to be careful worrying about who’s hitting behind me, who’s hitting in front of me,” said Magadan. “A hitter the caliber of David, if you’ve got a big stud hitting behind you, it’s obviously going to work to your benefit. But I have a lot of confidence in Kevin Youkilis.
“Kevin put up some big numbers for us last year, and I have no problem with him hitting fourth. I think as the season goes on, and David realizes what an effect Youk can have on the hitters in front of and behind him, that subject won’t be brought up very much this year.”
Ortiz appears to be swinging more aggressively this spring than he did at the end of last year when he struggled with injuries. Magadan said that the tentativeness that was evident as the slugger tried to avoid a recurrence of his wrist injury—something that rendered him vulnerable to fastballs up in the zone—is no longer apparent.
Presuming that Ortiz is back at full strength, pitchers may well give him the kid-glove treatment. If they do, the Sox don’t believe that will hinder their offense. To the contrary, they are optimistic that they have a lineup that can thrive even if opponents pitch around Ortiz.
“David had that luxury of hitting in front of Manny for a lot of years, but not everyone in the majors had that luxury but still put up numbers,” said third baseman Mike Lowell. “We’ve got about five legit guys who can hit 20-plus homeruns. You've got the AL MVP that's probably going to be hitting in front of David. So he's going to be in a spot where he can do a lot of damage.
“May he walk more? Sure, why not? Manny walked a ton when I hit behind him. But his numbers were still there. So I'm not worried about David having his numbers. I think David just has to make sure he's healthy and then he'll be able to put up his numbers.”
RAMIREZ DID NOT LEAVE A POSTSEASON VOID
There were times when members of the Sox couldn’t help but notice the absurd performance of Ramirez in the playoffs for the Dodgers. He seemed, at times, a one-man, dreadlocked wrecking crew.
The Sox offense, meanwhile, struggled, averaging just 3.87 runs per nine innings. With the Sox falling just short of the World Series, losing 3-1 in Game 7 of the ALCS to the Tampa Bay Rays, it became easy to imagine greener grass from elsewhere. Yet it also became easy to exaggerate how green that grass might be.
Even in the playoffs, it would be hard to make the case that the absence of Ramirez proved crippling. Bay was superb, hitting .341 with a .471 OBP, .634 slugging, three homers and nine runs batted in, while Youkilis proved solid during the postseason run, hitting .292/.346/.500 with two homers and seven RBIs. (In 39 playoff games with the Sox, Ramirez hit .329/.431/.584 with 11 homers and 36 RBIs—better than Youkilis’ 2008 postseason, but not as good as Bay’s.)
Moreover, it’s all but impossible to say whether the Sox missed Ramirez based on a single postseason. A five- or seven-game series is no time to draw adequate conclusions about a lineup, or to conclude that the middle of the Sox lineup was inadequate.
“After we lost to Tampa in Game 7, I saw an article about how the reason that the Phillies and the Rays were in the World Series was because their 3-4 hitters were better than our 3-4 hitters,” said Magadan. “My jaw dropped when I read that. Every single statistical category you could come up with, we were better than them, per game.
“When you take a small sample size of just seven games, certainly it’s going to be different,” he continued. “But I think, over the course of the season, I’ll take my chances with Ortiz and Youkilis.”
Indeed, Ramirez had been effectively—or at least largely—replaced by Bay. The offensive woes of the Sox likely reflected upon other absences from the lineup. In particular, the loss of Mike Lowell and continued un-Papi-ish-ness of Ortiz impaired the Boston offense in the postseason.
“I think what’s maybe misconstrued is that we got beat up physically at the end of the year,” said Francona. “The team that we thought we wanted, we didn’t have on the field. That was some of the reason that, offensively, maybe we didn’t do what we wanted to at the end.”
SO WHAT NOW?
Make no mistake: all things being equal, the Sox would have been thrilled to add Mark Teixeira to their lineup this offseason, even at a cost of $170 million for eight years. On paper, doing so could have vaulted the team from being one of the best offenses in the majors to, quite possibly, the best.
But without the addition of the switch-hitting first baseman, there seems little reason to pine for the departed Ramirez, or to suggest that the Sox must acquire a slugger or risk offensive inadequacy.
“What team wouldn’t want another guy who could hit 30 homeruns? ... Obviously, Teixeira was a guy everyone was talking about and we pursued him, but especially if Mikey Lowell is healthy, we’re a pretty good team,” said Magadan. “We’ve won a lot of games over the last two years with Mikey Lowell, Kevin Youkilis and the rest of the guys in our lineup. I’m a believer that we’ll be just fine offensively.”
If so, then perhaps the shadow of Ramirez will finally be cast off, once and for all.