Nationals Baseball: Can't live with him, Can't live without him

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can't live with him, Can't live without him

Wagner had a short litte piece at the Post the other day on Wilson Ramos. It quickly outlined the positives and negatives of Ramos and gave you Rizzo's (mostly fair) impression of the situation. In short, Ramos has some real skills and as far as catchers go, that can be hard to find.

The Nats are in a hard place as far as the catcher position. It was not good overall last year, but if they attempt to improve it's not impossible that they'll make it worse. There's always going after someone currently disappointing that may surprise, but given his skill set and age Wilson Ramos may be the best bet of those types of catchers. What to do?

Well let's put defense aside for right now. Wilson has hit well in the past. If he can do it again, or better, there isn't a problem here. Wilson hit really poorly last season. If he does that again, or worse, the Nats may have to stop playing him. Which is more likely?

The biggest offensive draw for Ramos is his pop but the flash of real power in 2013, when he hit 16 homers in 303 PAs was likely a fluke. That was the highest isoSLG of his career in any decently long stint, including the minors. You do grow into power yes, but you also tend to show some pop when facing lesser competition. Ramos hit for average but never really was more than a mild power hitter while coming up. The HR/FB rates back this up. 27.6% in 2013 was unusually high for Ramos. Everything says that last year was more reality.

Wagner notes that this still may be good for a catcher.  He was 4th in HRs for the position in the NL. True, but some of that is PAs (being healthy is a big plus for the catcher position) and it ignores the other part of power. Ramos was 10th (looking at NL C with at least 300 PAs) in doubles, and didn't hit a single triple. Hitting homers is great, but hitting doubles is important too. Ramos is all or nothing and probably doesn't have enough "all" to make up for the nothing*. That's why his isoSLG ranked merely 17th out of all catchers (min 300PAs). He's ok power wise, but not special.

OK, well I said he hit for average in the minors. Can he do that again? I'm not sure about that. I'm pretty sure he can do better than .229. His .256 BABIP is low even considering he's not fast and getting slower. He put up a .290 BABIP last year, .270 in 2013.  So just by luck the average will go up. But it won't go up by a lot. His hitting in 2015 was actually remarkably similar to his hitting in 2013 (and not too different from 2014), in the type of hit and where he hit the ball. That would suggest that luck was the difference, but we have one more thing to look at.

There is a strong downward trend in how hard he has hit the ball. 40.7% in 2013, to 27.5% in 2014 to 26.2% last year. It's all "real" but given how hard he hit the balls prior to 2013 the 2014/15 numbers are more in the expected range than that 2013 number. Sometimes you can point to an increase in swings outside the strike zone to explain the change but there is nothing here that really suggests that it's a change in approach. He is just missing a lot more on pitches outside the strike zone (70.5% contact in 2013 to 60.8% last year). He's striking out more. That feels like a loss of skills. So I see him hitting better but like .240 better.

And walking? No. That's not him. Don't expect that.

2013 was a fluke - at this point everything screams that. It was a half-season of almost everything going right. Looking for the positive, we combined that season's power and average with 2012's patience and formed a very good offensive catcher in our mind. While this wasn't crazy to do given Wilson's age and injury history, we now have 200+ games much closer to the present that tell us it was more realistic to take 2013's patience and 2012's power. We didn't get the best case, we got the worst case. The worst case isn't unworkable... but it's close. I have no faith he'll get any significantly better than he is now. low average, no walks, occasional homer

But is the defense good enough to make up for it? Maybe, but good luck figuring that out in any reliable way.  As Wagner notes, he's become great at throwing out runners and his passed ball and wild pitch numbers are very low. On the other hand his pitch framing has been middling the past two years. What matters more? For now I'd consider these things pretty reliable (catcher stats are based on thousands of pitches) so I assume he is pretty good at defense. But the question isn't is he good but is he good enough?

The best guess says we're back where we started. It isn't good enough to make up for it. It's merely good enough to get him to "below average" as a catcher, maaaaaybe average if he can hit a little better. But below where he sits now are a handful of catchers that start that are terrible. There isn't going to be an easy to find fix sitting on some bench that will improve on what Wilson does. And above where he sits is a group of 10 or so catchers only marginally better. There isn't going to be an easy trade target to improve on him either. To better the Nats at catcher they have to go after either a true catching prospect or a Top 10 catcher. Either will cost them plenty.

This all brings up the biggest question of all. We accept going with Wilson Ramos in 2016 because he's not terrible and there is nothing better easily obtainable. But if that's all true, what happens in 2017, when the Nats let him walk via free agency?

*However, I will note that I think he's better than the typical all or nothing guy. I think he hits balls that will drive in guys but just can't get himself into scoring position. So he gets half the benefit of a double type hit. Which is more than nothing, and probably explains some of his relatively high RBI total. But don't get me wrong. It's still not great. And I didn't even mention GIDP this whole time either! Which probably wipes out whatever I'm talking about here. 


Rob Evans said...

Where have you gone Johnny Bench? Sigh...

Bote Man said...

And to think I used to praise this as the best trade Rizzo had made for the Nationals. Meh.

Just plant a cardboard cutout of a catcher behind the plate, weighted down with sandbags. It could stop more throws from the outfield I'd bet.

Harper said...

Rob Evans - he's available!

Bote Man - I'd probably be a little gunshy too if I kept missing half seasons.

Froggy said...

I am think your analysis of Ramos is spot on but overlooks an area that would make a difference in BABIP and injuries, that of fitness. Let's say Ramos is a half step to a step quicker down the baselines, how many less DP's does he ground into and throws does he beat out at first? 5, 6, 10? OK, maybe not 10.

Dropping 10-20 lbs and getting fit could also improve his resiliency and reduce injuries, hammyies in particular.

blovy8 said...

That's an OK argument, but even a cursory look at his 2015 numbers say a reasonable 1st half, lousy 2nd half. A terrible July and September were not offset by a hot month. My guess is his hitting mechanics got screwed up by July and he never really recovered, because he is an opposite gap hitter and that was not nearly as much in evidence last season. You can argue that he'll never be able to re-adjust or there's physical issue, but I wouldn't go that far yet as many catchers take a while to develop as hitters. As fans we fixate on those throws home he can't seem to catch, but it does seem like he does everything else averagish and can throw. The eye test told me he was slow blocking pitches too, but I don't see the defensive metrics picking that up. The other thing is he's certainly a sell-low guy who will be a FA next year so he's not fetching much in a trade alone, I would give him a few months with a new hitting coach and manager, and see if he can hit .255 again, before I'd assume a trade was necessary, better the devil you know. It takes a while for catchers to learn a new pitching staff.

DezoPenguin said...

I'm inclined to trust the defensive statistics here more than the eye test (especially since he was also nominated for a Gold Glove despite not being able to hit the way joke nominations for the Glove usually do, so some professionals also think he has defensive competence). So we have a catcher who's average at pitch framing, above average at other defensive aspects, and had a poor hitting season. Moreover, the internal options at the position aren't good, and the free agent options at the position aren't good, which means that only through trades are we likely to reach genuine improvement at the position, and the teams that have genuine improvements available aren't likely to trade them to us.

I certainly would not make a free-agent offer to Wieters (hmm, a former hot prospect injury-prone catcher coming off a down season? Who does that remind me of?). If anything, I'd seek to improve the position long-term, trading for someone at the AA-AAA level who we can hope to have step in in 2017 or possibly earlier if necessary (the Yankees' Gary Sanchez would have been a nice such move, though they seem to be clearing room for him by their trade of Murphy yesterday).

Sure, if a deal lands in our lap, I would go for it in Rizzo's shoes, but catcher is not something I would be aggressively pursuing.

Actually, I've said it before, and I think it still bears repeating: the problems with the Nats lineup and rotation aren't "holes that need to be filled" but "risky spots where we might need a Plan B"--Werth, Taylor, Zim, Yuney, Danny, Rendon, Ramos, Roark, and Ross are all question marks for various reasons, so that they might break like twigs or stink on ice, or they all could wind up posting 3-6 WAR seasons at once and we win 100 games. Therefore, what we need is competent depth (because *something* is going to go wrong *somewhere*), or else we need to bring in star-grade players to move the "maybes" out of the way (and make guys like Taylor, Espinosa, and Ross *into* the depth).

The exception, of course, is the bullpen, but there, you can't even necessarily bring in stars because even they vary from year to year (see, eg., 2015 Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland). But at least there bringing in a quantity of Matt Thorntons and Craig Stammens means that *some* of them will likely stick and we won't have to constantly be throwing random guys from AAA in there with a prayer and no expectations.

markus said...

harper i have a research question for you: are there any examples of players (catchers in particular), that have started a career as "injury-prone", and then have gone on to have the second half of their career be relatively injury free?

When you think about it, other than the hamstring, some of ramos's injuries can be looked at as flukes --- particularly that opening day 2014 hand injury, and an acl tear is pretty common for catchers. If he can stay on the field, i think of him as a middle of the road catcher, which i don't believe is worth replacing.

John C. said...

Carlton Fisk has back-to-back injury shortened seasons in 1974 and 1975 (age 26 and 27 seasons) with a serious knee injury. And then played until he was 45.

As for Ramos, an upgrade would be OK, depending on how much of an upgrade you get and how much it costs. But on the list of Nationals' problems it's not in the top tier, and possibly not in the middle tier.

Harper said...

markus - that's a real research Q because it's not easy to simply grab "injury prone while young" you could go by major league games played but it's a poor proxy. Guys bounce around majors/minor for a while, may back-up for a while. Also catchers are play low totals to begin with. I looked from 1946 on for catchers that played 500 games (a mere 125 a season) from ages 29-32. I only got 30 less than half of what we see other positions*.

I can look at those 30 to see but I think the take away is more - catcher talent/health is rarely good enough to survive the typical aging process.

*which itself seems low