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Monday, March 12, 2012
30 Questions: Miami Marlins

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

MarlinsCan we really just give Hanley Ramirez a mulligan for his 2011?

No superstar-caliber fantasy player suffered a more disappointing 2011 season than Hanley Ramirez. The facts back it up: Among the top 25 players selected on average, Ramirez suffered the most significant drop in Player Rater ranking comparative to ADP (average draft position), finishing 247th after having being selected the No. 2 player (2.4 ADP) in the preseason.

Now, we're here to tell you to throw those facts out.

Ramirez rates as one of 2012's most promising bounce-back stories, and there's perhaps no greater rationale than his age: He'll play the entire season as a 28-year-old, an age widely considered to be during a player's prime. That his worst big league campaign yet came at the age of 27, another prime age, eases any concern about his performance being caused by declining skills.

Hanley Ramirez
Hanley Ramirez not only is recovering from injuries, he's now moving to third base.

But the Ramirez case is founded upon more than mere age.

Injuries might be the primary cause of Ramirez's 2011 struggles. Everyone recalls the shoulder surgery that prematurely ended his season; he didn't appear in a game after Aug. 2 and succumbed to the operation Sept. 15. In addition to that, however, Ramirez battled back pain for the entire month of May, before finally landing on the disabled list for two weeks in early June, not to mention missing three games earlier in the year due to leg and foot injuries.

Everything in Ramirez's statistical profile supports the case of a player adversely impacted by his injuries. Fantasy's No. 1 shortstop in both 2009 and 2010, Ramirez saw his strengths actually became weaknesses in 2011.

Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information recently took a closer look at what went wrong with Ramirez's 2011, and the most significant finding was that Ramirez almost completely lost the ability to pull balls in the air. From 2009-10, Ramirez pulled 27 percent of his fly balls (102 of 373), and hit 36 percent (136 of 373) to the opposite field. In 2011, however, he pulled only 18 percent (15 of 82) and hit 48 percent (39 of 92) to the opposite field.

In addition, from 2009-10, 31 of Ramirez's 45 home runs were pulled to left field, while 42 percent of the balls in play that he pulled were either fly balls or line drives. In 2011, by comparison, only five of his 10 homers were pulled to left, and only 29 percent were either fly balls or line drives.

That hints at a player who might have lost a bit in terms of bat speed -- with injuries a likely cause -- and as further supporting evidence, consider Ramirez's performance against fastballs clocked 93 mph or faster:

2009-10: .346/.419/.465 triple-slash rates, 17% miss, 210 PA
2011: .157/.317/.255 triple-slash rates, 21% miss, 64 PA

Ramirez also struggled with high, hard stuff. A .353/.457/.561 triple-slash slugger with a 17 percent miss rate against pitches classified as "Hard" (fastballs, cutters, sinkers and splitters) and "Up" (top third of the strike zone) from 2009-10 combined, Ramirez slipped to .220/.339/.400 and a 19 percent miss rate against those pitches in 2011, albeit in a smaller sample size (59 plate appearances that ended in one). Still, it's evidence enough that what was one of his strengths indeed had become a weakness.

That makes Ramirez's spring recovery most important in assessing his 2012 value. All indications are that his shoulder has healed, and while enough of spring training remains that it's impossible to get a firm read on his prognosis, the early returns are positive: Through four spring games, Ramirez is 5-for-9 (.556 batting average), including a double and home run.

Another small sample, yes -- and smaller than the aforementioned "Hard"-and-"Up" -- but encouraging nevertheless. The homer, specifically, represents a positive: It was a rocket shot he pulled to left field on an 0-2 fastball. Granted, one pleasant result doesn't completely cure Ramirez's ills, but a few more instances of those and fantasy owners can be more confident he has his 2009-10 game back.

That leaves the next-most critical question about Ramirez's 2011 as his adjustment to his new position: third base.

After much ballyhoo this winter with Ramirez frequently rumored to be unhappy with being forced to the hot corner after the signing of fellow shortstop Jose Reyes, even being hinted to be on the trade block, Ramirez appears to be settling in at his new position. It's a plus for fantasy; there aren't many dual-eligibility shortstop-third basemen -- though he'll need 10 games at the latter once the season starts to qualify there in ESPN leagues -- and none in the upper tiers of the rankings.

The adjustment to the new position could present a statistical obstacle, as it has been hinted in the past that a position change sometimes has an adverse impact upon a player's ability at the plate. Not necessarily; similar examples from the past 10 seasons show that the game's elite often remain elite even after shifting.

With help from colleague Todd Zola, the following list represents 10 prominent fantasy names -- and 11 total shifts, counting two during Michael Young's career -- who switched positions in the past 10 offseasons. These players each appeared in at least 100 games at their respective positions both before and after the switch, having made clear shifts between seasons:

Using simply OPS, the group suffered a mere 4 percent drop in performance from one season to the next, hardly an amount at which to scoff. That's something to use more to keep your Ramirez bounce-back expectations from getting out of control, not to use as a compelling case against drafting him.

We've already built that "keep your hopes in check" approach into our Ramirez ranking: At No. 13, he's rated a clear early-second rounder.

At his current rate of spring progression -- monitor him closely all through March -- Ramirez, indeed, warrants a mulligan.