Pre-arb deals are all the rage these days. The most recent one, which went to Tim Anderson of the White Sox, continues a trend of teams and players coming together to avoid sometimes uncomfortable arbitration hearings. Jose Ramirez just joined that club after signing a $26 million extension that covers his remaining five years of team control and gives Cleveland options for 2022 and 2023 at $11 million and $13 million respectively.
Prior to last season, it seemed unlikely Ramirez would ever get this type of deal. His first two years in the big leagues can be best described as lackluster. After a cup of coffee in 2013, he got a another trial run in the bigs in the 2014 season, which lasted 68 games. Over that stretch, he hit quite poorly, posting a 81 wRC+ and a .288 wOBA. However, he wasn’t disastrous as a shortstop, nor on the basepaths for that matter. All in all, he ended up racking up a 1.0 bWAR, 0.7 bWARP, and a 1.8 fWAR, each of which is very solid for 68 games.
But fast forward to the end of 2015, and a lot of the praise washes away. In his 97 games in 2015, his wRC+ dipped to 73 and his wOBA to .280. They weren’t good in the first place, so another drop pushed them toward “not a viable major league hitter” levels. Even on the basepaths his impact was limited, as his stolen base totals stayed stagnant at 10 despite almost 100 more plate appearances. The only nuggets of hope were that his strikeout rate dipped about two percentage points, and that his walk rate skyrocketed from 4.9 percent to 9 percent. Those changes turned out to chart his future much more than his overall batting line did.
His 2016 was not like the previous seasons at all. Ramirez showed why he was called up as a twenty year old and why he was on the fringes of many top-100 lists during his time as a prospect. The previous traits were there. He continued his ability to completely avoid strikeouts, where he was the fifth-hardest to strikeout in the entire league. Along with that, his walk rate stayed up in a solid range at 7.1 percent, which was lower than his 2015 rate but still good enough.
Where Ramirez really made strides was with his other offensive traits. Despite only a small increase in his hard-hit rate of 2.8 percentage points, he saw a huge uptick in performance. The major boon came in three areas. First, he limited soft contact to an extreme amount. His soft contact rate dropped from 19.4 percent to just 14.4 percent. A five percent drop in near-sure outs is a huge deal. Then, he began to use all fields. In 2015, he was a strong pull hitter, with 44.2 percent of his batted balls getting pulled. In 2016, he began to hit the ball up the middle on 2.3 percentage points more of his batted balls and he hit it the other way on 2.9 points more. Finally, he made a true impact on the basepaths. Ramirez more than doubled his career high of 10 steals to 22, which did happen with much more play time. But, he also gained the reputation of an aggressive and often successful baserunner with the penchant for losing his helmet. The result was a five-win season for the player many had already given up on.
This is a deal that helps both sides going forward. The Indians get two of Ramirez’s years of free agency at below-market values, as it's hard to imagine the super-utility player not being worth $24 million in 2022 and 2023. In exchange, Ramirez gets financial certainty, without having to live on league-minimum salaries for the next two years, haggle over arbitration for the next three, or wonder if he might not make it to his big payday. The financial certainty is valuable to the Indians as well; for this young team with high hopes, that can go a long way toward Cleveland effectively planning their budget for veteran additions to help round out the roster.
This is essentially why these deals are so popular. Ramirez gets paid up front, and still gets to hit free agency after his age-30 season; Cleveland gets a good player at a below-market price on the back ends of the deal; both sides get predictability. It’s hard to see either side being unhappy with this.