These two players are incredibly similar, but you wouldn't know it based on their brand new contracts
Roughly one year ago, free agent Cody Ross signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Red Sox. Ross had a tough 2011 in a difficult park for hitters, and the market he hoped for never developed. He signed an incentive-laden deal with Boston for what was his lowest salary since 2009. While a broken foot derailed his season for a time, Ross ended up playing in 130 games, hitting .267/.326/.481 with 22 homers and 57 extra-base hits, earning him a three-year, $26 million contract with the Diamondbacks.
A couple of weeks before Ross signed with Boston in 2012, free agent outfielder Scott Hairston re-signed with the Mets for $1.1 million. Ross's deal was for roughly three times more, but with the amount of money here, that sounds more impressive than it is. Hairston played in 134 games, amassing 398 plate appearances with a .263/.299/.504 line, along with 20 homers and 48 extra-base hits. His reward for that production? While Hairston also received a multi-year deal, agreeing with the Cubs for two seasons, he pulled in less money total than Ross will receive per year with Arizona, even if Hairston reaches his incentives. The new Cubs outfielder is making just $2.5 million in base salary, even less than what Boston gave Ross before 2012.
There is some mystery here, as the two seasons were very similar even after park adjustment. Hairston posted a 117 OPS+, and Ross posted a 113. (Or, if wRC+ is more your speed, Hairston 118, Ross 113.) Going back beyond just 2012, Hairston has hit .248/.303/.453 with a 106 OPS+ since 2008, while Ross is at .262/.322/.452 over the same stretch, good for 105, so it's not Ross' history that earned him nearly $20 million more. Hairston is only one year older than Ross as well, so it's not an age thing. They are both low-average, low on-base, high-power players who mash left-handers while struggling a bit more against their fellow righties. Even defensively there are similarities. So what gives with the recent gap in contract value, if it's none of the above?
The comparison goes deeper than just the surface numbers, and here is where we might shed some light on Ross' relative popularity. Both are pull-happy power hitters, but whereas Ross was able to spend the 2012 season in a park that might as well have been built for his swing, Hairston once more played in one that favors pitchers. That's the story of Hairston's career since leaving the Diamondbacks in a 2007 trade. Since then, Hairston has played in San Diego, Oakland, San Diego again, and the Mets' Citi Field. This hasn't stopped him on the road, where he's hit .282/.325/.529 the last two years. Ross, on the other hand, is at .234/.304/.400 on the road in the last two seasons.
These samples are small, yes, but the key point here, more than the specific numbers, is how context plays a role. Ross was able to boost his home and overall numbers considerably thanks to a park that benefits right-handed power hitters with loft in their swing more than any other park in the majors. Hairston had to, once again, deal with a home park that has the exact opposite effect. Even without Fenway, Hairston produced at a 58 percent better clip than other right-handers on balls he pulled in 2011, and he was 37 percent better in that regard in 2012. Those are very close to Ross and his 41- and 53-percent marks from the past two years, and it's easy to imagine Hairston doing even better with the wall just over 300 feet out. Had Hairston been the one in Fenway in 2012 on a $3 million contract, he would likely have pulled in far more than what he did this off-season, while Ross at Citi Field would likely have meant another low-cost deal for 2013.
So, the Cubs have snagged a bargain by bringing Hairston in for two years at such a low base salary, especially since their park is so good to right-handed power hitters. While the rest of the division isn't as friendly, Miller Park and the Great American Ballpark are two of the most extreme parks for right-handed homers in the majors, and Hairston will get to play in them semi-regularly now. Ross, despite the more significant money, is headed to a park that, while good for right-handed hitters, has nothing on Fenway in that regard. There's a reason Ross had 39 of his 57 extra-base hits at home in 2012, and that reason stands 37 feet tall on Lansdowne Street. That's the same reason Boston chose to sign Jonny Gomes for two years at $10 million rather than negotiate with Ross, knowing the park made the man in a way that made Ross' contract demands untenable.
Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with park effects. Maybe Diamondbacks' general manager Kevin Tower truly believes in the power of the grinder attitude and bonus to clubhouse culture that is Cody Ross, and poor Scott Hairston's personality just isn't anywhere near as glowing. At this point in the Diamondbacks' off-season, that possibility can't be discounted.