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Season Preview: What Will The Rays Get From Wilson Ramos?

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MLB: Washington Nationals at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of many of many Rays fans being upset that the Rays were outbid for elite pitch framer Jason Castro to the Minnesota Twins to improve the catching production the Rays went out and got the guy that wasn’t on our radar.

During the winter meetings it went from smoke to fire on the hot stove, as the Rays and catcher Wilson Ramos went from rumored to signed within 30 minutes. The Rays were able to sign him to a 2 year $12 million deal with $4.75 million in incentives based on plate appearances and games caught.

Wilson Ramos is coming off a 5.2 WARP season and .307/.354/.496 with a 124 wRC+. Ramos put up the fourth highest WARP for a catcher in 2016, behind Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal, and Jonathan Lucroy. He was the best free agent catcher on the market.

Ramos was looking at a big payday as a 29 year old catcher coming off a monster season until he tore his ACL in the last week of the regular season. This is the only reason the Rays were able to afford somebody that might be a favorite to put up a season that would qualify as best in team history.

The Rays team history is littered with seasons by catchers who can’t hit. Ramos could put up the best offensive season for a Rays catcher in franchise history, but that will likely have to wait until 2018 for a full season once the knee injury is behind him.

Defense

The Rays have been focused on catcher defense in the recent past and more specifically pitch framing. They signed Jose Molina at the start of free agency in order to bring in a guy who brought in an elite skill that was being undervalued. With Matt Wieters still available on the market while Jason Castro was the catcher that was all the buzz who had multiple suitors looking for his set of skills.

Wilson Ramos isn’t an elite pitch framer, but he has been above average. Over the last three seasons he has posted a total of +5.2 framing runs above average per Baseball Prospectus. By blocking runs Ramos has been slightly in the positive at +1.1 runs over the past three seasons.

His most consistent defensive asset has been his arm. He has thrown out 61 of 153 attempted stolen bases. His 39.9% caught stealing rate is well above the average that is typically in the high 20s. Baseball Prospectus has valued his arm at +4.7 runs over the past three seasons.

All together Ramos has been worth +12.6 runs defensively over the past three seasons. That’s an above average defender that isn’t elite at anything, but is a little above average everywhere.

The Rays don’t know how much or how well he’ll catch this season, but that is the reason the Rays were able to fill their biggest organizational weakness on the free agent market.

Offense

Wilson Ramos was going to be a highly pursued catcher due to his bat. Unlike Wieters he’s coming off a great season with the bat and doesn’t cost his teams a lot of runs framing.

A .307/.354/.496 line and 124 wRC+ is absolutely amazing out of a catcher. Ramos has been very high variance season to season with the bat.

In 2015 Ramos hit .229/.258/.358 and 63 wRC+. There is no denying that the results were awful for him. That is below the 66 wRC+ that the Rays catchers combined for in 2016. He would fit right in with the inept offensive catchers the Rays have historically employed.

In 2014 Ramos hit .267/.299/.399 and 93 wRC+. He missed a significant part of the season due to surgery to repair a broken hamate bone. He missed all of April as he recovered from an injury that typically limits power for the next year or so.

The question is what bat belongs to the real Wilson Ramos? The simple answer would be it’s probably somewhere near the middle of his awful 2015 and his great 2016. That would put him right around his career 100 wRC+.

That would be disappointing for some, but would still impact the Rays offense as a catcher.

Digging into his batted ball profile would be the first place to look if there was an underlying reason for the gains. On the surface he posted an increased walk rate. Although 6.7% is still below average it’s much higher than the 4-5% he has been running in the recent past. In 2015 his strikeouts spiked to 20.0%, but went back to 15.1% which is closer to his career 16.8% strikeout rate.

Both of those things should lead to better results, but it doesn’t explain the massive difference in the two seasons.

Ramos’s 20.4% line drive rate was in line with his 19.6% 2015 rate and 21.6% rate in 2014. Ramos’s 54.3% groundball rate is the exact same as his career and slightly lower than the 55.5% and 55.4% rates he posted over the previous two years.

Ramos is a guy who hits the ball on the ground. It will cause giant swings in batting average which has shown to be true. He doesn’t walk much so his on base percentage is highly reliant on his batting average. Ramos is a slow runner which isn’t really unexpected out of a catcher with a previous knee injury which doesn’t bode well for a groundball profile.

Just how slow is Wilson Ramos? By Fangraphs.com’s speed factor he comes in at 0.9 last year and 0.9 over the last three years. For all batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances he has been rated the slowest runner in all of baseball, perhaps only because Jose Molina has retired. He came in just behind Prince Fielder (1.0) and David Ortiz (1.1), both of whom also retired. He’s slow and you should probably expect him to lose a step coming off a major knee injury.

For his career he has averaged a .204 BABIP on groundballs which has been worth an average of 7 wRC+. That seems low, but it is reasonable because of his speed. In 2016 he posted a .240 BABIP and 25 wRC+ which is one of the highest rates of his career. This is where you expect his regression in batting average to come from.

Due to his combination of groundballs and lack of speed Ramos is one of the most likely hitters to hit into a double play. In the last three years he has combined for 50. The last two years he has been in the top 10 most likely to hit into a double play by Baseball Prospectus’s DP% stat that isolates plate appearances that are possible to hit into a double play. Over the past 3 years he’s hit into 50 double plays in 252 opportunites or 19.84% of the time.

Ramos traded a few groundballs for fly balls as his 25.3% fly ball rate is his highest since 2012. Flyballs left the park at a 21.4% rate which is high, but he has ran a 17.4% rate for his career.

Not all is doom and gloom for the expected regression of Wilson Ramos.

Ramos absolutely smokes the ball when he gets it airborne. He averaged a 93.8 MPH exit velocity on fly balls with an average distance of 327 feet. That is roughly the same as Brad Miller displayed in 2016 as he posted a 93.7 MPH exit velocity and 326 feet average distance.

Ramos’s .350 average and 259 wRC+ on fly balls is slightly elevated, but he’s put up a .329 average and 234 wRC+ for his career. He looks fully healthy from the broken hamate in 2014.

The upside in his bat comes in the form of getting more balls in the air. He has the power to put up big power numbers and has hit 15 and 22 homers the last two seasons despite a groundball rate hovering around 55%.

In his rookie year of 2011 he showed the ability to get the ball in the air at a 35.6% rate and would love to see him trade more ground balls for fly balls.

2017 Expectations

Wilson Ramos would be expected to have one of the largest variations in what to expect from his bat if not for the injury. Add the injury and now playing time is even in question.

Ramos believes he’ll be ready to at least DH in May. The Rays haven’t come out and put a timetable on his return, but a standard timeline of June or July has been expected. One positive is the Rays haven’t put him on the Disabled List, which would have taken him out until the first week of June, so a May return could still be possible.

Steamer projects a .256/.302/.419 line and 94 wRC+ over 396 plate appearances and worth 1.2 fWAR which doesn’t include pitch framing. ZiPS projects a .260/.299/.416 line and 97 OPS+ and to be worth 2.5 zWAR over 465 plate appearances. PECOTA (BP) has Ramos hitting .255/.300/.421 and being worth 0.6 WARP over 165 plate appearances, which presumes a very long recovery from injury.

I think the Rays should be happy to see him healthy and behind the plate come July while providing something around a league average bat. The real reward for the Rays in this deal will be a healthy 2018 season.

Fingers crossed.