Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wilson Ramos and Batted Ball Profiles

Wilson Ramos is a really interesting case study, and a good contrast of the “old school” stats and the “new school” analytic mindset. He is a career .269/.317/.432 hitter who flashes some big time power out of the catcher position, a notoriously difficult position to fill with an offensively capable player. By those standard metrics, Ramos is an all-star. While you can’t argue with his historic production, dig a little deeper and some potential problems start to arise.

Obviously, with a career OBP less than 50 points higher than his average, Ramos struggles at taking a walk. And the trend is only going in the wrong direction. Ignoring an uptick in 2012 (in his injury shortened season due to a torn ACL), his career high was a walk rate of 8.7% in 2011, and that dropped to 4.7% in 2014. Compare that to an MLB average walk rate of 7.6% in 2014. While Ramos rarely walks, he also rarely strikes out, with a strikeout rate of 15.8% in 2014 versus the league average of 20.4%. In an increasingly pitcher friendly environment, there is something to be said for someone who puts the ball in play on a regular basis. 

For a power hitter who puts the ball in play a lot, Ramos is putting the ball in play in all the wrong ways. Ramos has been hitting the ball on the ground at steadily high rates, with a groundball rate of 55% in 2014. With Ramos’ lack of speed (and tradition of pulling hamstrings), he isn’t going to be legging out any groundball hits. All those groundballs also mean he is putting the ball in the air less at an alarming rate, giving himself less opportunities to hit the ball out of the yard. Breaking in with the Nationals in 2011, he hit fly balls near the league average at 43.3%. In 2014, that fly ball rate was all the way down to 23%. Somehow, when Ramos does put the ball in the air, he puts it over the fence at an incredibly high rate. He has consistently put up HR/FB rates over the league average of 10%, allowing him to retain that slugger reputation.  On the one hand, you can easily make the argument that what we see in those batted ball rates is just Ramos’ make up as a hitter. We have 4 years of data to look at and prior performance is a good indicator of future performance. On the other hand, the ability to be a power hitter with this batted ball makeup is rare (see: Billy Butler), and it is hard to understand how a swing that produces few fly balls can somehow produce homeruns.

The increase in groundballs may be a result of Ramos’ disturbing trend of swinging at pitches outside of the zone. He has always been a bit of a free swinger at pitches out of the strike zone, but his rate of doing so has increased nearly two percentage points every year, peaking in 2014 at just under 40%. Credit to Ramos for not letting that free swinging lead to soaring strikeout rates. His contact rate has stayed pretty much the same despite that increase in swings at bad pitches. Since he isn’t swinging and missing, though, he is swinging at balls out of the strike zone and putting the ball in play, probably leading to that increase in ground balls. If Ramos loses a little bit of bat control or his swing slows down some, due to aging or injury, those groundballs are likely turn into strike outs.

The final concern with Ramos is, of course, his injury history. He hasn’t played in 100 games since his first full year in 2011, hitting the DL with various hamstring injuries, a torn ACL, and a broken bone in his hand. There is some predictive value to previous injuries, and Ramos’ string of hamstring injuries certainly doesn’t instill confidence in his ability to stay healthy in 2015. All teams need to carry a competent backup catcher, given the rigors of catching day in and day out. With Ramos penciled in as the starter, though, the Nationals will always have a need for a catcher they can count to fill the full time role if (when) Ramos hits the DL. Of course, that is a really hard pitch to give to prospective free agents. Credit Mike Rizzo for going out and getting Jose Lobaton last offseason. While Lobaton doesn’t really cut it as a full time starter, he is still a tier above your standard backup catcher.

Similar to the discussion around Ian Desmond, Ramos has value due to his position, even with some of the problematic trends we found. The offensive bar for catchers is not set very high. If you can provide adequate defense (and while pitch framing is a topic for another day, it is certainly real and Ramos grades out about average), offensive production is almost a bonus. To understand the market for catchers, take a look at how this offseason has already played out. The Blue Jays went out and inked Russell Martin to a huge contract. The Cubs, also in the market for a catcher, took a look at the rest of the free agent market and decided their best option was to go out and trade for the Diamondback’s Miguel Montero after missing out on Martin. So while we can and should fret over what Ramos brings to the table (and when he’s actually healthy enough to sit at the table to begin with), it’s important to keep in mind what the alternatives look like.

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