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2020 Mets takeaways: The catchers

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Catching is the team’s biggest issue heading into 2021

Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The book on Wilson Ramos when he signed a two-year deal with the Mets in 2019 was simple: He’s an above-average hitter and a below-average defender. And in the first year of his contract, he somewhat lived up to those expectations, hitting for a 105 wRC+ and even achieving a league-best 26-game hitting streak towards the end of the season. He presented his greatest value with his durability, however, appearing in 141 games, the most for any Mets catcher in a season since Mike Piazza in 2001. It appeared as if the Mets had found a suitable starter for the 2020 season.

But El Búfalo did not match his 2019 performance in 2020, nor did he really come close. Ramos has never been an especially good defensive catcher, and in 2020 he didn’t see much progress. According to Baseball Prospectus’s catcher defense metrics, Ramos ranked 75th amongst 99 qualified catchers with a -.6 rating in Catcher Defensive Adjustment (CDA). He was especially poor with pitch framing and defending errant pitches, finishing in the bottom half of qualified catchers in Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) and Errant Pitches Above Average (ERAA). He actually ranked better in all of these metrics in 2020 than he did amongst all qualified catchers in 2019, but he also finished behind backup catchers Tomás Nido, Rene Rivera, and Ali Sanchez in these measurements this season, as well.

Ramos was actually slightly better this season throwing out runners than last season, where according to BP he topped all qualified catchers in bases stolen above average, but his 17.6% caught-stealing percentage puts him last amongst all qualified catchers in 2020. One could argue that Ramos’s defensive improved slightly between 2019 and 2020, but one could more easily argue that Ramos remains one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. He frames poorly, blocks poorly, and seldom throws out base stealers.

None of these defensive shortcomings should surprise anyone who has ever watched Ramos play his position, but what should surprise Mets fans is Ramos’s offensive production in 2020. Ramos finished the season with an 89 wRC+, his worst hitting season since hitting for 62 wRC+ in 2015 in Washington. Amongst all catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, only Yadier Molina and Gary Sanchez finished with a lower wRC+ than Ramos. His 20% strikeout rate and .387 slugging percentage were both the lowest of his career since that 2015 season, as well. Combining his offensive struggles with his defensive inabilities, one could argue that Ramos was the worst starting catcher in the National League, and one of the worst in all of baseball.

What made the Wilson Ramos experience especially difficult for Mets fans this season was comparing him to the player Ramos replaced, Travis d’Arnaud. After being released from the Mets in May of 2019, d’Arnaud reappeared for the Rays last season and became their playoff starter and a middle-of-the-order bat. He went on to have a career year for the Atlanta Braves this season, hitting for a career high 145 wRC+ and finishing eight overall in CDA according to BP, making him one of the five most valuable catchers in baseball according to fWAR. To assume d’Arnaud would have produced the same for the Mets this season is a bit presumptuous considering he never played this well in his six seasons in New York, but the fact remains that d’Arnaud had a highly productive 2020 season and Ramos did not.

It would be very surprising if the Mets picked up Ramos’s $10 million option for 2021, which means the club will likely have a big hole to fill coming into next season. Finding that replacement in-house might prove difficult, as well. Veterans Robinson Chirinos and Rivera are 36 and 37 years old, respectively, and only played in 14 combined games this season. Top prospect Ali Sanchez recorded only one hit in ten plate appearances this season and will likely see a little more time in the minors before being given significant major league playing time. But it wasn’t all bad news for Mets catchers this season.

After struggling in his first two seasons as a backup catcher in the big leagues, Tomás Nido emerged as the lone bright spot amongst Mets catchers this season, albeit with not many opportunities. Nido showed promise with a .292/.346/.583 slash line in only 26 plate appearances, but it’s hard to make anything out of a 150 wRC+ in such a small sample size. Similarly, his 0.4 CDA put him in the top 25th percentile amongst all qualified catchers in 2020, which is around the same percentile he finished in both 2018 and 2019. If Nido can continue hitting next season, he could blossom into a serviceable starter, or more likely a very capable backup.

But with no comfortable option heading into next season, the Mets will likely acquire a starting catcher via trade or through the free agent market. J.T. Realmuto will be a key target for not just the Mets, but likely half the teams in the league, and if the Mets look to acquire him they’ll have to rely on new owner Steve Cohen immediately breaking out his checkbook. A Mets lineup with Realmuto plugged in the middle would make a formidable force, but many even cheaper options would still be an improvement next season over Ramos.