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Hanley Ramirez has lost 16 pounds since last season, posted an .846 OPS and played a decent first base after diligent work in spring training at his new position. He has also—be sure you’re sitting—been an upbeat, positive influence around the Boston Red Sox. Yes, this is the same Ramirez who, despite having extraordinary skills, hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2010, who hit .249 last year and who was regarded by his most recent former team, the Dodgers, as a negative clubhouse influence.
Ramirez evidently paid off what Red Sox analyst Bill James has called the “transition tax,” the familiar regression in the first year of a mega-bucks free agent contract with a new team, especially one in a large media market.
The return of a healthy, happy and hearty Ramirez is just one of many reasons why Boston has the best offense in baseball. The Red Sox are scoring 6.03 runs per game and have lashed at least 10 hits and scored at least half a dozen runs in seven straight games. Only the 2003 Sox ever had a longer such run in franchise history (10 games).
In addition to the reawakening of the 32-year-old Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., 26, has become an aggressive, powerful hitter thanks in part to restoring the leg kick he used in college, which he did last August. Travis Shaw has been a huge upgrade on the injured Pablo Sandoval at third base. Dustin Pedroia is showing his most pop in five years. And 40-year-old David Ortiz is channeling Ted Williams by having a historically great season for someone so old and playing in his last season. Everything has broken Boston’s way on offense.
Ramirez may be the key piece, if only because he gives pitchers some pause when they pitch to Ortiz, knowing he is on deck. How do you explain such a turnaround in production and attitude?
“It’s like I tell people, you have to wait a year before you’re likely to see the player that you think you signed,” said Boston manager John Farrell. “That’s true most places, but especially here. The other thing is that Hanley is much more comfortable at first base than leftfield. He’s more engaged. You can see it. You can see he feels personally responsible for the other three infielders. He’s into every pitch. There are more responsibilities. I just see a guy who is more confident and more engaged now.”
Let’s not get carried away and think Ramirez is getting anywhere close to the All-Star days of his youth. When the Red Sox traded him to the Marlins after the 2005 season, I remember one Boston executive saying, “He has Hall of Fame ability. It could wind up being in centerfield, but he can be that good.”
It won’t happen. Ramirez has thickened over the years, losing his explosiveness. Oddly, because hitters typically gain power and lose contact skills as they age, Ramirez seems to be losing power, too. The underlying warning signs beneath Ramirez’s revival are that he is striking out at a career-high rate, fewer of his hits are going for extra bases than in any other year of his career, and his rate of at-bats per home run is the worst of his career. He is hitting the ball more often to the opposite field—so much so that none of his four home runs have been hit to leftfield.
But the 2016 Ramirez is a major upgrade on the '15 model. The Red Sox gave him a four-year, $88 million contract to be an elite hitter. Then-GM Ben Cherington said, “There’s just not that many opportunities in this game to bring in a player of Hanley’s ability overall, particularly on the offensive side.”
Actually, those opportunities happen every year. Hitters and pitchers reach free agency with very good numbers, hit the jackpot with a new team—and regress. Ramirez’s familiar story got me thinking about how much truth there is to this idea of a “transition tax.” And if so, can we measure it?
Let’s round up all the free agents over the past five years who signed for $75 million or more with a new team. There are 23 of them. Let’s remove one international free agent, Masahiro Tanaka. Now let’s compare what those free agents produced in their walk year and in their first year with their new team.
First we’ll examine how durable they were, using games for position players and innings for pitchers:
Played more: 8
Played less: 12
Played same: 1
So you’re likely to get less of a workload from a big free agent. Now we’ll examine their production, comparing OPS+ or ERA+:
Produced better: 4
Produced worse: 18
There is your “transition tax.” Over the past five years, 82% of the most expensive free agents regressed in Year 1 with their new team. The exceptions were all pitchers:
It's worth mentioning that both Sanchez and Greinke had already spent part of the previous season with their teams listed above after being acquired in midseason trades. Lee was returning to Philadelphia, where he had pitched in the second half of 2009.
Meanwhile, all 15 hitters who changed teams after getting contracts of at least $75 million were stuck paying the “transition tax.” Here are your bottom five tax payers:
2011 Red Sox
2015 Red Sox
If you add up all 22 mega-free agents from the past five years, the transition tax works out to a decline of 17 points off their ERA+ or OPS+. But if you just take the 88% who regressed, the transition tax they paid averaged a drop of 30 points. To put it another way, teams are paying some of the most expensive contracts to get a superstar hitter, but in Year 1, they get another Avisail Garcia (2015 OPS+: 89, the same as Ramirez).
With less focus on him this year, Ramirez is ceding the spotlight to a slew of rising, homegrown Red Sox hitters like Bradley, Shaw, rightfielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and catcher Christian Vazquez, the latter of whom should be a Gold Glove contender with the best receiving skills since Yadier Molina. And the next wave is not far behind. The Class A Salem Red Sox (26–10) are tearing up the Carolina League behind a pair of star 21-year-old prospects: infielder Yoan Moncada (.974 OPS) and outfielder Andrew Benintendi (.976 and recently promoted to Double A Portland). “And Moncada’s not even our best hitting prospect,” said one Boston evaluator. “That’s [third baseman] Rafael Devers,” who also is playing for Salem but is off to a slow start (.197). Salem’s team batting average is .281.
Said Farrell of the Red Sox’s young core, “It’s getting to be a team that belongs to Betts, Bradley, Shaw, Vazquez.… They’re much more confident. In 2014, coming off the World Series win, we were still a veteran-led group, and some of them were just trying to fit in. Now it seems like it’s transitioning. For instance, Mookie is the one that organizes dinners on the road—like 22 guys will show up. These younger guys are leaders in their own right.”
Keep in mind that the Red Sox have done much of their damage at home (.311/.376/.507) and have the most wins in baseball against losing teams (20–10). They are on pace to score 977 runs, something no team has done since PED testing with penalties began in 2004. It’s unlikely they can stay this hot. But if their deep, balanced lineup stays healthy, the Red Sox could become the first team to score 900 runs since the world champion 2009 Yankees.
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When Ortiz tied a game Saturday against Houston with a ninth-inning triple and won it with an 11th-inning double, the pitches had a common denominator: They were on the outside third of the plate. He smashed an outside sinker by Luke Gregerson and an outside changeup by Michael Feliz.
Ortiz is such a great clutch hitter, in part, because he moves closer to the plate, knowing pitchers simply aren’t going to bust him inside. By standing on the plate without fear, Ortiz can turn the outside “lane” of the plate into a middle “lane.” That’s exactly what he did with both clutch extra-base hits Saturday.
The night before Ortiz burnished his clutch reputation, I asked him why pitchers don’t throw at or near him more often.
“They don’t want to pitch me inside because they know I can hit that pitch,” Ortiz said.
I reminded him that when he first came up, Ortiz had a hole in his swing—a small box on the inside corner just above his hands. It’s typical for lefthanded hitters like Ortiz that have an above-average launch angle in their swing. Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, for instance, has the same hole (his only one). So I asked Ortiz how he learned to cover that hole.
“Simple: I stopped swinging at that pitch,” he said. “That’s what I learned. For me to hit that pitch, I would have to go like this…”—he pulled his hands in and swung awkwardly by bringing the barrel slightly down to the baseball—“rather than like this”—he took his usual swing with the barrel coming slightly up to the baseball. “So I just don’t swing at it.”
Ortiz’s tactic leaves pitchers with little room to get him out inside. If they try to get him out on pitches just off the inside part of the plate, it won’t work because he won’t swing there (unless the ball is down and running in). If they try to get the ball in for a strike and miss by a matter of inches over the plate, he can pull the pitch out of the ballpark.
This year, Ortiz has seen 601 pitches, but only 35 of them have been thrown on the inside third of the strike zone (5.8%). By contrast, more than one out of every three pitches he sees is out of the strike zone down and away (208 pitches, or 34.6%). The guy can stand on the plate with impunity.
Ortiz has seen 3,432 consecutive pitches covering 846 plate appearances without getting hit since Seattle's Charlie Furbush plunked him on Aug. 23, 2014. This impunity may or may not explain how Ortiz can be going out on nearly the same terms the 41-year-old Williams did in 1960. Compare the last year of Ortiz to the last year of Williams after both had 149 plate appearances (Williams had one HBP):
The eclectic trio of Williams (1.221), Barry Bonds (1.045) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (1.033) are the only players to post an OPS greater than 1.000 in their final season. The home run leaders in their last year form an equally interesting list: Dave Kingman (35), Williams and Mark McGwire (29) and Bonds (28).
By the way, Williams was hit with only 39 pitches in 9,788 career plate appearances. Ortiz has been hit with 36 pitches in 9,613 plate appearances.