Before the 2017 season, the Rays took a gamble on The Buffalo, Wilson Ramos, who was recovering from knee surgery. Ramos was able to return during the second part of 2017 and give the Rays slightly below-average production. This might have disappointed some fans, but his two-year deal was always about 2018.
In year two, The Buffalo was exactly as advertised. He was a star. On a franchise with a history of terrible-hitting catchers, he gave true middle-of-the-order production at a premium position.
An ill-timed groin pull meant that Rays fans were neither able to enjoy that production through the end of the year, nor to pin their hopes on a hefty prospect return when Ramos was traded (the PTBNL that Philadelphia sends to Tampa Bay will likely depend on how soon he’s ready to play).
So all that’s left now, to close the book on Wilson Ramos’s time with the Rays, is to ask where he ranks in the history of seasons by Rays catchers.
When Wilson Ramos gets the ball in the air, he can flat-out hit. In 2018, he hit a home run on 23% of the fly balls he put into play (well above his already high career rate of 18%). I’ve limited this list to catchers with 100 plate appearances in a season. I put the limit that low because I wanted to include Curt Casali, who had an absolutely ridiculous run in 2015 where 32% of his fly balls became home runs.
Over an extended period, Wilson Ramos’ 2018 was the best-hitting season by a Rays catcher ever, topping the on-base machine, John Jaso. But for a very brief period, Casali was better.
Offense (rate stats)
Why am I paying attention to rate stats in a small sample size, you ask? Well, because Casali’s 2015 was so spectacular that it shows up near the top of the offensive leaderboard for the counting stats as well. In 100 plate appearances, Curt Casali was 5.1 runs above average, placing him second on the all-time Rays leaderboard for catcher offensive production. That’s a special run.
As for the complete season contenders, Wilson Ramos was better at the plate in 2018 than John Jaso was in 2010, but the balance shifted dramatically after they got on base. You see, Jaso was an average runner (fast for a catcher). The Buffalo is slow, giving up nearly an entire win with his feet. That’s enough to hand Jaso the top spot and knock Ramos down to third.
Offense (counting stats)
The second half of this “top-10” list gets rough, mostly consisting of players who were below average but managed to make it onto here by being below average in a small sample size. Yikes.
Traditional Catcher Value
Playing catcher is not just about hitting—if it were, there would be more players on this list like Jaso and Ramos, who could, you know, hit. Rather, catcher is the most difficult, premium defensive position, demanding a special set of skills.
The catcher defense included in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is primarily based on blocking pitches and throwing out runners who are trying to steal. Incorporating those into an overall value calculation knocks Casali off the leaderboard (his 2015 is 11th overall), but leaves Jaso at the top.
There are two new names in the top three, though: John Flaherty (1999) and Dionner Navarro (2008). The format of the available data changed between 1999 and 2008, so their two calculations are based on slightly different measures, but here’s the crux of it:
- In 1999, opposing runners attempted to steal 130 bases on Flaherty, and he threw 52 of them out (40%). They should have tried less often. As it was, they gave him arguably the best defensive season ever by a Rays catcher.
- In 2008, it was a different time. Moneyball had taken hold, and teams were less aggressive on the basepaths. Opposing runners tried to steal 73 bases against Navarro, and he threw 28 of them out (38%). They too should have tried even less often.
Based on FanGraphs’s stats, we don’t know how Flaherty was at blocking pitches, but Navarro was actually slightly below average (not enough to cancel out his good work with the arm).
That brings us to Ramos in fourth. Runners have continued to get less adventurous, and only 32 tried to steal on The Buffalo in 2018. He threw seven of them out (22%). Now, when there are only 32 stolen base attempts, that means that it’s the fast guys trying, and it means they’re only going when they get good jumps. I’d be curious to see how many caught stealings Wilson Ramos would be able to notch if he faced 130 attempts, but, barring the invention of a time machine, we’re stuck with the conclusion that Ramos’s steal prevention defense was slightly below average, which doesn’t help his spot, but it is also not enough to move him far down the leaderboard of best Rays’ catcher seasons of all time.
Okay. So I have to admit, I’m having real trouble figuring out exactly how both Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Reference WAR calculate catcher defense. For FanGraphs, it’s clearly changed over time, but it is not well documented. For Baseball Reference, I haven’t the foggiest idea.
Would not knowing what components are included stop Admiral Farragut from presenting a leaderboard? No, I don’t think so either.
The big change when we go to Baseball Reference is that John Flaherty is pushed down the list, while 2005 Toby Hall vaults to the top. There were 79 attempted steals on Hall in 2005, and he caught 33 of them (42%).
Jaso’s 2010 season remains highly rated, Ramos’s 2018 stays up there, as does Navarro’s 2008.
Advanced Catcher Value
Most of the time it doesn’t really matter what WAR variant you use—they each get there slightly differently, but they’re all getting to about the same place. That’s not the case when you’re talking about catchers, because Baseball Prospectus has done some truly exceptional work on evaluation catcher defense, with advanced approaches to calculating both pitch blocking and catcher framing (the winning or losing of strikes for the pitcher based on how the catcher sets up and catches the pitch). If you haven’t read about their methodology, stop right now and do so.
This changes everything, because as it turns out, catchers have a lot of control over whether those borderline pitches become balls or strikes—so much control that the impact of framing defense dwarfs all other aspects of catcher defense.
John Jaso in 2010? He lost 12.7 runs compared to the average once you factor in framing. Knock him off the leaderboard (down to 12th).
Dionner Navarro in 2008? He lost the Rays 20.8 runs, compared to average. He’s off the leaderboard as well (way down at number 46th!).
We don’t have the pitch-tracking data to evaluate 2005 Toby Hall or 1999 Mike DiFelice, but the folks at BP have done some pretty clever work, and they think that Hall was about average at framing (and they have him slotted at 13), and that DiFelice was pretty good (and they have him slotted at 7).
Of our formerly-discussed leaders, only The Buffalo Wilson Ramos remains. In 2018, Baseball Prospectus thinks he was one run below average with his glove, which is good enough for his excellent offensive work to propel him up to fourth, all-time.
Fourth?!?!?!? Behind whom?
The Rays have long been one of the pioneers of pitch data analysis, and in the early 2010s, before it appeared on Baseball Prospectus, they were already beginning to evaluate catcher framing and to realize the magnitude of its import. In 2012, they went after a market inefficiency, bringing in 37-year-old journeyman Jose Molina to be their starter.
In 2012, Molina was roughly eight runs below average with his bat. He lost nearly three runs via poor pitch blocking, according to the Baseball Prospectus stats, and he was roughly average at throwing out runners. But he was 27 runs better than average at framing pitches for strikes.
While his bat dropped further off the pace as a 38-year-old in 2013, he did it again with the glove, buying his pitchers 22.5 runs worth of strikes. He’d be on this overall list again for 2014 if his bat hadn’t fallen to a nearly indescribable low, with a .178/.230/.187 slash line.
Jose Lobaton slides into second place with what looks like an unremarkable season—he was average with the bat (good for a catcher), and he was six runs above average behind the plate, once framing is factored in. I think the fact that a basic, solid season like Lobaton’s 2013 sits at number two on the Rays catcher leaderboards is a testament to just how weak the history of Rays catcher seasons has been.
In a sad twist for his place in history, Curt Casali had one good framing year an one bad one. His bad framing year came in 2015, when his bat could do no wrong. In 2016, when he shored up his work behind the plate, his bat could do wrong.
There will never be another Jose Molina. He was a freakish talent—a true genius at framing pitches—who developed in a time when baseball teams put relatively little value on that specific skill. The Rays realized this and went out and got old Jose Molina, giving him his first full-time shot at a time his career probably should have been over. It worked out for two years.
But MLB is a copycat league, and soon, everyone realized how good Jose Molina was. The response was not a bidding war for the 40-year-old Molina. Rather, everyone—all catchers and all teams—worked a little harder to be more like Jose Molina.
This year, according to Baseball Prospectus, the best defensive catcher in the league has been Max Stassi of the Houston Astros, who is currently 12.7 runs above average. The worst has been Wilson Contreras, of the Chicago Cubs, who’s now 10.7 runs below average. Contreras can hit, and he plays in a league without a DH, so he keeps his spot in the field. But even he’s not like the bad defensive catchers of yesteryear. Compare the 23.4 run spread between first and last now to the 54.5 run spread the league had in 2012 (between Brian McCann and Carlos Santana), when Molina first came to Tampa Bay.
Wilson Ramos’s 2018 was not the best catcher season in Rays history, but all of the overall better seasons came from a wild time when hidden wins were cheap if you knew where to find them.
It was not the best offensive catcher season. That belongs to John Jaso, and his relatively speedy legs.
It was not the best season at the plate. That title has to stay with Curt Casali, who packed a year’s worth of production in only just over a month of games.
They don’t hang banners for “best true talent season by a catcher at the plate,” but that’s what Ramos’s 2018 was. And it was pretty fun to watch.