The Rays Plug a Big Hole
I have spent the majority of this offseason begging, pleading, cajoling, and other less mentionable methods of attempting to get the Rays attention regarding their biggest weakness. I wrote about Derek Norris, Jason Castro and Miguel Montero being nice additions that all would have a chance of being positive expected value. A guy I didn’t spend much time writing about is Wilson Ramos, who I expected to be priced out of the Rays range despite suffering a torn ACL, his second, in the final week of the regular season. That doesn’t appear to be the case as it looks like he and the Rays have agreed on a deal for two years with a guarantee of $12.5M that can max out at $18.5M if he reaches all incentives. While I wasn’t advocating heartily for this reason, I did mention it in another forum:
Wilson Ramos just lost something like a hundred million dollars in free agency due to this knee injury. He was never in the Rays price range, but this might make him more likely to take a one year, make good, pillow contract. I think most teams would get involved and just stash him on the 60-Day DL if the price is right. I’d love to see the Rays give him something like $8M next year to see if he can have an impact from June or July through the end of the season. Upside is that he comes back and plays like he has this year, neutral is that the team sucks or that he doesn’t hit and you flip him to another team at the deadline to clear the salary and maybe get something back, rock bottom is that he never gets healthy and you flush $8M down the drain. We call that a Loney in these parts.
The injury is the big story. It might have lowered the Nationals chances at winning the World Series this year, but it utterly destroyed the solidly cultivated market that was shaping up to wine and dine Mr. Ramos. He was probably looking at a nine-figure contract as he was coming off one of the very great seasons for a catcher in near history. It was certainly the best season of his career:
I’m using Fangraphs for his batting splits, but switching over to Baseball Prospectus for their excellent defensive metrics. He has always been a pretty good hitter against lefties, but he took that to another level in 2016. While he has been a little below average against same-handers he was also very good against them this past season. Overall, he had a 124 wRC+ over a good amount of plate appearances for a catcher.
While his walk year was an extraordinary success, other than the whole torn ligaments thing, you can see that it came on the back of inarguably his worst season since coming to the Show that never ends. This probably gives you pause or clouds some of the predictability that he had coming into that year. Before his worst season he had always been between 90 and 115 wRC+ overall. When you see something depart that far from the baseline you have to wonder what happened there before objectively not letting it color your opinion too much, though much like his 2016 it just makes me expect a bit more regression.
As you can see he has been an above-average framer throughout his career, and unlike many good framers he doesn’t have to necessarily lose anything from his blocking and throwing as he looks average or better in those facets. Additionally, Ramos presents the ball extremely well on pitches up, which is tremendous for two reasons. First off, the Rays love to pitch up in the zone with their heaters. Guys like Blake Snell, Drew Smyly, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi live and die by whether they can get called strikes up that forces batters to eventually get over-aggressive on the pitch. The second reason is that the league has insinuated that the bottom of the strike zone will be moving up making it tougher for even good thieves to get those calls. Overall, he’s going to give you around +5 – 10 runs on defense at the hardest position on the diamond. Pair that with the average bat, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a 3 WAR catcher.
A good thing about this signing is that the Rays can put him on the 60-Day Disabled List so that they do not have to potentially lose the roster spot while he rehabs. This should have the effect of encouraging the team to take it slow so that when he comes up he is fully ready to not only hit everyday, but also resume being a kind of quietly good modern defender behind the dish. Ramos has made some noise about possibly being ready to play by May, but with risk of an aggravation I’d rather see him come back a month later than miss the entirety of the two-year contract. A bad thing about that is that it cuts into his ability to produce. Let’s come back to that in a bit.
To give you a sense of how he shapes up as a hitter I have pulled several metrics which I feel are of some importance, and I have also compared his total to the 435 players that have accrued at least one thousand plate appearances since he broke into the league in 2010 to get a sense of where he ranks in each category:
He’s middle of the pack in a lot of stuff so I want to call out a few things that really popped. The first thing that stood out to me is the incredible rate of ground balls that he produces. At 54.3% he was in the top-10 percentile for GB%. He robs from both his liners and outfield fly balls to create this prodigious rate, though his ability to top the ball means he also doesn’t pop up often. The interesting thing contrast is that he was still in the 71st percentile in homers, and 92nd in homers per fly ball so when he does put the ball in the air it has a tendency to really go.
Going further, I can also tell that he’s a bit of a hacker with well below average walk rates paired with close to average strike out rates. Dig a little deeper and you can see that he is in the 93rd percentile for swings, which breaks down as 92nd for in-zone pitches and 20th at avoiding swinging outside of the zone. Pretty safe to say that he’s going to put the ball in play. This is an area the Rays already looked to move towards when they prioritized Matt Duffy in the Matt Moore trade. The Duffster is of a similar mold in that he doesn’t strike out much and puts the ball in play a ton. Ramos would seem to be an acknowledgement that the team had gotten a little tilted toward a three-true outcomes approach, and perhaps could be a balance in the right direction. One issue he won’t be of much help in is his ability to get on base, however.
Also, like Duffy, he uses the whole field as his pull percentages are pretty low, especially in comparison to his guts and oppo percentages. Despite his willingness to spray with it’s great benefits of keeping the defense honest, he still is above average at hitting the ball hard. Here’s a look at his spray chart:
Note the spray and power to all fields. As an aggressive hitter he does have a tendency to roll over and pull weak grounders to the pull side, but he more than makes up for it with a great approach that sees him stay back on the ball. Lastly, I want to take a quick look at what his expected production and terms of his contract look like from a financial sense:
There aren’t many details out on the contract yet other than the floor and the ceiling, but it’s a small issue. Let’s assume he hits all of his incremental increases and that he only plays half a season in 2017 before getting a full season in 2018. I see him putting up around 4.2 wins over the two years, which would give him some surplus of over $14M. There is an entire galaxy of more or less optimistic profiles, but the takeaway here is that he could be even worse than this and still be a good buy for the Rays.
It is extremely rare for the Rays to go out into free agency to get someone that is actually a decent player. It took the usual unusual circumstances for the team to even have a chance at him, but it looks like they’re going to come away with someone that can help the team contribute over most of the next two years even if we have to wait a little bit. Much like a starter coming back from Tommy John surgery there might be an adjustment period as he re-acclimates to the league. The team would be well-served to get him plenty of rehab to keep that window as short as possible. Things go right the Rays just got themselves a full time catcher that could be a part of two potential playoff runs. If individual success ends up trumping team success then maybe you can still get something for him down the road, and if he’s completely toast, well at least the team tried to fill their biggest hole since the inception of the franchise.