Was Manny tanking it in Boston?
October 13, 2008 Leave a comment
I suppose that Manny Ramirez isn’t exactly the most popular of people in Boston right now. After his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers of Brooklyn, if Boston’s partisans are to be believed, Manny got a whole new attitude and started hitting the ball a whole lot better. The theory espoused by the amateur psychologists in the audience was that Manny just didn’t have his heart in the Boston cause. No doubt that Manny had a (well-deserved) reputation for being… Manny, but at the time of his trade, this apparently uncommitted gent had put up a .299/.398/.529 line for the Red Sox. If that’s what happens when a man doesn’t have his heart in it, get me a team full of apathy! Then again, in Los Angeles, Manny did put up a line of .396/.489/.743(!!!!!!) in two months of duty with the Dodgers. Certainly, the man himself hadn’t changed in terms of physical talent in the past few months. Why the change in results? If it’s not talent, then it must be his effort. Right?
Let’s prosecute Manny for the high crime of not playing up to his fullest potential in Boston and for holding back until he got to the Dodgers. Is the evidence there?
The first thing that was cited by Boston fans as evidence for Manny’s lack of heart was the fact that he didn’t seem to run out as many grounders in Boston as he did when he was in LA. Not having video evidence on the subject, I can’t really comment on whether that’s true, but there is one piece of evidence that might come in handy here. In Boston, Manny legged out 4.3% of his ground balls for hits, which was basically in line with his performance over the past few years (3.6%, 3.9%, 2.7%). In Los Angeles, it was 12.2%. Manny’s never been a speed demon, but maybe there’s something there. Maybe he was running a little harder with the Dodgers. Or maybe it’s that over a small sample size (49 grounders in LA) he got a little lucky. So far, we can’t say much for his attitude.
What really changed about Manny when he got to California? A quick look at some swing diagnostics might tell us something. Take a look at the bottom of Manny’s FanGraphs page. Manny swung a bit more in LA, although it wasn’t across the board. His in-the-zone swing percentage was nearly identical in both cities, but he pulled up his out-of-the-zone swing percentage by a full five percentage points in LA. Why? Because the number of pitches that he saw in the zone dropped by about 3.5 percentage points. I suppose he had to swing at what was given to him. Despite swinging more (and at more pitches out of the strike zone), he actually walked more in LA (15.8% to 12.9%) and struck out less (23.6% to 20.3%). That’s hard to do. He swung more at bad pitches… and apparently missed fewer of them. So, for what it’s worth, he was a little more ‘locked in’ while in California than he was in Massachusetts.
Manny was also making better contact on pitches in the zone. When he swung at a pitch in the zone in a Red Sox uniform, he made contact 84.4% of the time, which was a drop of about three percentage points of what he did over the past few years. Over the last two months of the season, it went back up to 87.5%, where his track record would indicate that it belonged. But it wasn’t just his swing diagnostics that told the story. His batted ball profile was the biggest change of all. With the Red Sox, Manny’s GB/FB/LD rates were a fairly common-place 41/40/19 split. In L.A., it was 32/36/32. The man suddenly became a line-drive hitting machine. Not shockingly, his BABIP leapt up to .432 in Dodger Blue, because line drives are really hard to catch.
His power seemed to be rejuvenated in the warm California sun as well. His HR/FB rate in Boston was a “mere” 17.9%, while in LA, it was 30.7%. For a guy who was usually around 22-23%, it was a little low in Boston and a little high in LA. His ISO rate made a similar jump after the trade. It wasn’t a matter of his getting a little unlucky or lucky with doubles being pushed over the wall by a gust of wind or… well this is Boston we’re talking about and Manny is a right-handed hitter, so there is the effect of the Green Monster to consider, so let’s look at all extra base hits. In Boston, Manny averaged an extra base hit of any kind about once per 10 PA. In LA, it was down to 7.5.
Then there was the fielding. I’ve shown that outfield fielding stats (at least my OPA! stats for outfielders) are a bit unreliable (so take this with a grain of salt), but Manny’s range in LA’s LF suddenly got better in than it had been in front of The Monstah. (Here I’m using RZR.) His range factor improved too.
Certainly, Manny was a different player in LA than he had been in Boston, and a better one at that. He swung more often, but was more efficient in his swings, made contact more often and better contact when he did, had more power, and apparently got more out of his legs after switching coasts. The case against Manny is growing. Is there any evidence that he wasn’t a better player in terms of his mindset? About the only thing I could find was that Manny was a little more “clutch” in Boston than he was in LA.
So, we come back to the question of whether Manny Ramirez was tanking it in Boston. It’s usually followed by “Why couldn’t he have done that before he got to the Dodgers?” What could possibly explain the sudden awakening that he had? It’s important to note that in most of the areas that I identified where there was a notable difference between the April-July Manny and the August-September Manny, it was a case where Manny’s performance in early ’08 tracked his career norms more closely than his late ’08 performance. In other words, the early part of the year with Manny was much closer to the “same old Manny” for whom Red Sox fans had been cheering for the last 7.5 years. His performance was a little down (he had an awful month of May) in those first four months, but it was his performance in the last two that really came out of left field. (Get it?)
There are a couple of theories that I might hazard here. Manny’s second half looks like a spike in the graph, and given no other information, the best thing to do is to ignore a spike. Manny’s second half surge may have simply been luck. But I’m not convinced on that one. Swing diagnostics are very reliable, and batted ball profile is also, as are BB and K rates. It could be luck but we do have a 200+ PA sample on which to base Manny’s performance with the Dodgers, and all of the diagnostics point to his actually improving in measurable ways. Why now?
Was it that Manny was simply tanking it for all the years that he’d been in Boston, and finally liberated from whatever it was in Boston that he didn’t like, he finally broke out in LA? To the psychologist in me, that theory suggests a man who was perhaps depressed for a long period (since signing?) and it was the very fact that he was in Boston that was making him depressed, and that was affecting his functioning. (Too much pressure? Trouble with teammates? Actually hated the color red?) When he broke out of Boston, he was able to relax and dominate the world with his bat. It’s a plausible theory, although I can’t base a psychological diagnosis on batting data, and I think there’s a better explanation. Plus, someone probably would have noticed and intervened if he was seriously depressed.
I wonder if Joe Torre or Don Mattingly said something to Manny that changed his approach at the plate. That would make the most sense. Or maybe being in a new city, Manny felt license to try something a little different, particularly being in a new league where people hadn’t really seen him before. Maybe Torre and Mattingly did adjust his attitude, but maybe it’s as simple as installing a new approach at the plate. Whatever they did (or didn’t do), it sure worked. The problem with the “tanking” explanation is that it assumes that Manny either actively sabotaged himself (why?) or passively rested on his laurels in Boston (i.e., he was lazy). The latter could be the case, but maybe what we perceive as laziness was simply Manny reaching a plateau in terms of what he could do given the ideas to which he’d been exposed. His performance was pretty consistent from year to year in Boston. He goes to a new city, tries out a new approach after an infusion of fresh ideas and soon enough, he’s tearing the cover off the ball at a whole new level.