Monday, November 2, 2015

2015 Season Review: Wilson Ramos

At the conclusion of each of Wilson Ramos’ past seasons with the Nationals, the review always started with: "if only." If only Wilson could stay healthy. If only Ramos’ season wasn’t derailed by injuries. He was so productive over those periods when he was healthy, it seemed like all Ramos had to do was avoid injury and he would prove to be one of the most valuable assets on the Nationals roster, given how hard it is to find a catcher who can hit. Well, in 2015 he avoided major injuries. He played in 128 games, the most he has ever played over a single season. Except he wasn’t a huge asset. Rather, he posted the worst offensive season of his career.

By the end of 2015, Ramos’ batting average was down to .229. Now, Ramos has never been one for a sky high batting average, power is his calling card. He hit 15 home runs on the year, but posted an Isolated Slugging average of only .128, lower than light hitting Denard Span! That lack of power meant that Ramos had a wOBA (a measure of a hitter’s overall value based on the relative value of each single, double, walk, out, etc where .320 is about average) of .265 and a wRC+ (weighted runs created where 100 is league average) of 63. Those were all career worsts for Ramos, and by a good margin.

Ramos’ offensive game has never included patience, and he certainly didn’t show any during 2015. His walk rate in 2015 was 4.2%, almost identical to his 2014 rate and considerably below the league average 7.7% walk rate. Walks don’t necessarily have to be part of a hitter’s repertoire for them to be successful. Ramos has rarely posted above average walk rates, especially over the last couple of seasons, and was an above average hitter. However, His strike out rate went from just under 16% in 2014 all the way up to 20% in 2015. Ramos earned all those extra strikeouts by swinging and missing over 12% of the time, the highest whiff rate since his rookie year in 2010. A power hitter who struggles to make contact isn't much of an asset.

To really understand Ramos’ struggles in 2015, though, break his season into two halves. He had a decent first half, posting a .290 wOBA that is below average for the league but looks better coming from a catcher. However, Ramos appeared to fall apart in the second half of 2015. Over that time period, he hit only .197 and struck out in 22.5% of plate appearances. It wasn’t as if pitchers discovered some previously undiscovered whole in Ramos’ swing. No, instead they realized that Ramos couldn’t catch up to a fastball in the second half of the year. After hitting close to .300 off of fastballs in previous years, Ramos hit under .200 versus against fastballs in the second half of 2015.

While Ramos was “healthy” over the full course of the season, in the sense that he didn’t hit the DL with a major injury, the stats certainly indicate that Ramos wasn’t 100% during the second half of the year. He struggled offensively as the season wore on, especially against fastballs, pitches he used to do damage on. The indicators extend to Ramos' power numbers as well, although his home run totals don’t tell the full story. After averaging over 300 feet on home runs and fly balls hit in 2013 and 2014, Ramos averaged only 290 feet in 2015. Despite hitting 7 home runs in the second half of the year, Ramos actually hit the ball with less authority and power. It could be that Ramos wore down as he played in more games than he ever had before or that he actually had a minor injury or two that weren’t made public. Whatever the reason, Ramos was not the same player in the second half of the year that Nationals fans were used to seeing.

There are a lot of negative indicators with Ramos but look closely enough and there are some signs for optimism. Ramos could recover from the hidden injury that plagued him or adjust to playing in more baseball games and start catching up to the fastballs that he used to clobber. On top of that, Ramos really struggled when facing left handed pitchers. He hit only .233 against lefties with a mere 4 home runs in 2015 after hitting .325 against lefties in 2014. Such a low offensive output against left handed pitchers from a hitter who usually feasted on lefties does not seem sustainable and that should turn around in 2016. In the right light, Ramos could look like a great bounce back candidate offensively.

Unfortunately, a lot of a catcher’s value is tied up in defense. As much, if not more, than is linked to offense. And for Ramos, that’s another demerit on his 2015 record. While he has been nominated for a Gold Glove, that’s based on his impressive 44% caught stealing rate. Unfortunately for Ramos, catching a potential base stealer is tied to the pitcher’s delivery to the plate probably more so than a catcher’s arm strength. Ramos has never gotten close to catching 44% of base stealers in the past and is unlikely to do so again next year. No one should confuse Ramos with Ivan Rodriguez or Yadier Molina.

On top of that, a catcher also has the ability to influence ball or strike calls from the home plate umpire. Call it framing or call it presentation as the play-by-play guys this post season have become accustomed to, but it’s real. The way a catcher catches a borderline pitch has an impact on whether the umpire calls it a strike or a ball. If the catcher moves his arms, head, or glove and jerks the pitch around after his catch, it’s going to be called a ball. If the catcher uses subtle movements and positioning to make it appear that the pitch hit its mark, it’s going to be called a strike. This statistic is still in its infancy and measuring the actual value and impact is not a perfect science. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to compare Ramos to the rest of the league. Regardless of the source, Ramos ranks close to the bottom of the list and a significant ways off of the lead. Even more alarming, Jose Lobaton, the other catcher on the Nationals roster, is ranked higher than Ramos by any measurement.

It was, without a doubt, a down year for Ramos. The defensive struggles are likely here to stay. It’s difficult to go from being a poor defensive catcher to a good defensive catcher at this point in Ramos’ career. And for as poor as Ramos’ offensive 2015 season was, there are some signs that he could bounce back in 2016. He likely won’t ever be the All-Star he was projected to be when he first became a National, but he might be able to hold his own at a position that is starved for capable hitters.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann

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