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Getting to know Wilson Ramos

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The Mets’ new starting catcher provides strong offensive production at a premium position with average defense, but he comes with some injury risk.

Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mets fans are probably most familiar with Wilson Ramos—nicknamed “The Buffalo”—for the seven seasons he spent with the Nationals between 2010 and 2016. Coming up through the Twins organization, Ramos was known for his hitting ability and strong arm behind the plate. He threw out 43% of potential base stealers in his minor league career and was ranked as the Twins’ third best prospect by Baseball America entering the 2009 season, behind Aaron Hicks and Ben Revere, and was the 71st-ranked prospect overall. Ramos got a brief cup of coffee in the major leagues in 2010 for the Twins, filling in for the injured Joe Mauer behind the plate.

At the 2010 trading deadline, Ramos was dealt to the Nationals for closer Matt Capps and spent the next seven seasons in Washington D.C. before hitting free agency in 2016. The 2011 season was Ramos’s first complete one in the big leagues, and he proved himself to be a solidly above-average hitting catcher, posting a 111 wRC+ with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 435 plate appearances. Behind the plate, he was also as good as advertised, throwing out 32% of potential base stealers and grading out among the best pitch framers in the league that season.

But that was when his injury problems started. He missed most of the 2012 season with a torn ACL and a portion of the 2013 season with hamstring issues. However, when healthy during the second half of 2013, Ramos was once again a productive player for the Nationals—so much so that they dealt Kurt Suzuki at the trading deadline that season, rolling with Ramos instead as the primary starting catcher. He put up 3 WARP in roughly half a season’s worth of play. But in the very first game of the 2014 season, Ramos broke his hand and once again found himself on the disabled list.

Finally healthy in 2015, Ramos played in 128 games—the most in his career—but his offensive production regressed in a big way. While he continued to produce runs and hit for power, his on-base percentage took a nosedive; he posted just a .258 on-base percentage that season. With just one more season left before free agency, the decision whether to extend Ramos or let him walk became a lot more difficult for the Nationals. But Mike Rizzo remained high on Ramos.

“He’s a good catcher,” Rizzo said of Ramos during the 2015-2016 offseason. “He was No. 1 in throwing runners out. He was up for a Gold Glove. He was one of the top in National League in home runs and RBI. He had a down year in getting on base, not like he should, and hitting for average. But as far as a guy, as catchers go, really had some impact in the lineup with power, RBI and catch-throw skills were fine. We like Ramos. He’s a guy that it would be difficult to find a better replacement for.”

Ramos’s defensive skills were indeed quite striking in 2015. He lead the league in caught stealing percentage with a 44%. He was one of the best in the majors at blocking balls in the dirt and once again graded out well in framing ability, although not as well as his 2011 season. The Nationals chose not to extend Ramos and in his walk year in 2016, he put up the best season of his career. He slashed .307/.354/.496 with 22 home runs, 80 RBIs, and a 123 wRC+, posting 3.4 fWAR. If you prefer Baseball Prospectus’ new hitting metric, DRC+, Ramos had a 116. By Baseball Prospectus’ WAR metric, which incorporates framing, Ramos fared even better, putting up a 4.3 win season.

Perhaps the secret key to Ramos’ success in 2016? Lasik eye surgery, which improved his pitch recognition at the plate and took him to the next level. He was an All-Star. It looked like he was cruising straight toward a big payday in free agency.

But then the injury bug bit again in September of 2016 and this time it was the most devastating news of all—he re-tore the same ACL that he had repaired in 2012 and would once again require surgery, meaning he would miss at least part of the 2017 season. Not only was it Ramos’ walk year, the Nationals were also preparing for the playoffs, from which he would now be sidelined.

The Tampa Bay Rays took a gamble on Ramos, inking him to a two-year contract in December of 2016, heavily laden with incentives to hedge against his injury history, knowing that the focus would be on 2018 rather than 2017. He did return during the second half of 2017 and was worth roughly half a win over 224 plate appearances with close to league average offensive output, which is fine for the catching position, but not fine by the standard of Ramos’ career as a hitter.

Which leads us to last season, when Ramos reminded us what he is capable of with the bat. His 131 wRC+ was first among catchers in the big leagues with at least 200 plate appearances. DRC+ is less bullish on his 2018 at 111, but notably with a rather large standard deviation of 13. That ranks him 7th among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances. He hit 15 home runs and drove in 70. He was once again an All-Star for the second time in three seasons. Ramos was traded to the Phillies at the deadline, although probably not for the return the Rays were hoping for, due to the fact that he was once again on the disabled list with an ill-timed injury, meaning that whatever team acquired him would have to wait a brief period to benefit from his services. But the Phillies took a chance on Ramos anyway and he was productive for them, hitting .337 over 33 games at the end of the 2018 season.

Last season, Ramos seemed a lot more like the player he had been in 2016, at least with the bat. His defense paints a slightly more complex picture, which can best be described as he does some things well, other things not so well, and how you view the overall picture depends on which things you value. His arm is still regarded as above average and he is good at throwing runners out. He is good at blocking pitches and has only allowed 41 passed balls in his career over 729 games. For comparison, J.T. Realmuto has allowed 36 passed balls in 729 games. His defensive performance in the playoffs aside, Yasmani Grandal has allowed 64 passed balls in 681 games in his career.

That said, despite the fact that he has mostly graded out well by advanced metrics measuring framing throughout his career, he has been slightly below average in that department over the past two seasons. As a result, Fangraphs has Ramos’ 2018 season valued at 2.4 WAR, while Baseball Prospectus has it valued at 1.7 WAR. Ramos is now 31 years old and years of squatting behind the plate combined with multiple lower body injuries throughout his career may be contributing to a decline in framing ability. Already a large man, his lack of speed is a liability as well, an issue compounded by his injury history. Even among catchers, he consistently ranks poorly in base-running ability and that will likely only worsen with time.

While Ramos has been painted as strictly a bat-first catcher, there are some elements of the catching position in which he performs well. But the latest research on catching defense indicates that framing ability likely trumps nearly everything else when it comes to evaluating catchers. Ramos has historically been good at framing pitches, but has put up underwhelming numbers in that department in the recent past. His skills with the bat, however, are undeniable when he can remain healthy.

In short, Wilson Ramos is an above-average right-handed bat—far above average for the catching position—which the Mets desperately need, and a slightly below-average pitch framer, with good pitch blocking and throwing skills and poor base-running. While injury risk is obviously the major concern with Ramos, it’s hard to argue that he is not worth the contract he has been given, which doesn’t come with a high price tag or the sacrifice of a major league asset in trade.