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Wilson Ramos is going to have to hit to be valuable in 2020

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The 32-year-old’s defense probably isn’t going to get any better.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the offseason, there was some question about what the Mets would do with their catching situation. In 2019, the Mets had an odd dichotomy behind the dish between Wilson Ramos, who hits well for a catcher but whose offensive value is largely offset by his porous defense, and Tomas Nido, a good defender whose bat is so light that it doesn’t justify playing him for the defensive upgrade. The two did not complement each other’s contrasting skill sets well, creating an awkward pairing that combined for just 0.8 fWAR.

Many thought it would make sense for the Mets to change the formula at catcher and set up a more sensible combination of backstops for 2020, but the team decided that the best course of action was to do nothing. They’ve entered 2020 with the exact same crop of catchers they ended 2019 with, having brought back René Rivera. So the Mets will once again rely on Ramos to carry the bulk of work this year in spite of his defense with no real backup plan in sight.

To his credit, Ramos has been working to improve his receiving and framing. While it’s encouraging to see work being done in that area, the 32-year-old Ramos really can’t be expected to be a positive at any aspect of catching anymore; he ranked 102nd out of 113 qualified catchers last year in adjusted FRAA, pitchers preferred not to work with him, and he even seemed to struggle at times with simply catching the baseball. Not only was he statistically one of the worst framers in the league, but his bad knees limited his mobility behind the plate, rendering him an ineffective blocker and hindering his pop times to the point where it canceled out any benefit of his strong arm. It’s hard to see how those things could improve at this point.

With that, Ramos’s value this year is likely going to have to come entirely on the offensive side, and he’s going to have to hit a lot to make up for that defense. Last year, a 105 wRC+ and 100 DRC+ got him only to 1.4 fWAR and 1.6 WARP; it’s likely that is the baseline of how he’ll need to hit again in order to be a valuable commodity to the Mets.

The good news is that Ramos’s offensive potential is much higher than what he did in 2019, as he has put up a 132 wRC+ in 2018. That said, he does have really tricky offensive profile to project. We know Ramos packs a lot of raw power into his 6’1”, 245-pound frame—we saw him clock some monster shots last year—but he has never bought into the launch angle revolution, preferring instead to swing down on the ball and go the other way more often than not.

As Allison McCague documented in his 2019 season review, Ramos’s average launch angle last year was exactly zero degrees, ranking dead last among anyone in baseball with over 200 plate appearances—despite an exit velocity that ranked 82nd out of 281 players on that same list. That means that Ramos was consistently hitting balls harder than average, but he was pounding them into the ground far too often. The eye test bears this out, as we saw Ramos rip a bunch of hard ground outs to shortstop and third base last year. This approach resulted in Ramos only knocking 14 home runs in 524 plate appearances, a rate almost unheard of in the juiced ball era for someone as strong as he is.

This is not a new development, as Ramos has always posted low launch angles for as long as we’ve been able to measure them, though never as low as last year’s mark. While there is nothing inherently wrong with hitting for average and not selling out for power, Ramos’s approach has led to inconsistent offensive outputs throughout his career because he is heavily reliant on batted ball luck to drive his offensive value. One has to wonder if he would be better served trying to hit for power and worrying less about spraying the ball around, but Ramos is unlikely to overhaul is offensive approach at this stage of his career.

Overall, Ramos’s defense allows him very little room for error before he becomes a complete liability, but he’ll be fine if he can just can stay healthy and repeat or even outdo his 2019 offensive performance. The Mets have to hope he can because they’ve added no insurance policy in case he doesn’t.