Roberto Ramos’ Youth and Power Stand out in the KBO

While the NC Dinos bolted from the gate by winning 17 of their first 20 games — the best start in the history of the Korea Baseball Organization — the LG Twins have been the league’s hottest team of late. After starting the season 2-4, the Twins have won 14 of 18; through Tuesday, they stood just two games behind the Dinos (18-6). This run has been largely powered by first baseman Roberto Ramos 라모스, who recently homered four times in five games, and leads the league with 10 dingers overall.

Ramos, a 25-year-old lefty swinger who spent 2014-19 in the Rockies chain, began his latest jag with a walk-off grand slam against the KT Wiz’s Min Kim 김민 김민 on May 24, turning a 7-5 deficit into a 9-7 win :

Two days later, in a 3-0 shutout win over the Hanhwa Eagles, he put the Twins on the board first with a solo shot off reliever Yi-hwan Kim 김이환:

The next day was another shot against the Eagles, this time off starter Min-je Jang 장민재 in what became a 15-4 rout:

After going homerless in the series finale against Hanhwa, Ramos bashed a two-run homer against Kia’s Aaron Brooks 브룩스 in a 6-2 win on Friday:

Through Sunday — the cutoff for all the stats in this piece except otherwise indicated, Ramos was hitting .375/.451/.813, running fifth in both batting average and on-base percentage while leading in slugging percentage, wRC+, and WAR (230 and 1.6, respectively, via Statiz). The Twins were 8-1 in the games in which he’s homered (he doubled up against the Dinos on May 10), and 8-6 in games that he hadn’t.

His path to the KBO is worth reviewing. Though Ramos was born in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico on December 28, 1994, he moved to San Fernando, California before his junior year of high school. After hitting just one homer as a junior at Birmingham High School, he bashed 11 following a transfer to San Fernando High School. Most notably, the slugger — who was described as measuring up at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, though Baseball-Reference lists him at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds — was hitting with a wood bat, his eyes clearly on a pro career. After going undrafted in 2013, he spent a year at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, then was chosen by the Rockies in the 16th round the following year.

In his first three professional seasons, Ramos played just 126 total games due to injuries. He put himself on the map in 2018, when he hit a combined .269/.368/.574 with 32 homers split between High-A Lancaster and Double-A Hartford; he won the California League Home Run Derby that summer, and grazed the Rockies’ prospect lists heading into 2019, ranking 27th on that of Baseball America, and as an honorable mention on that of FanGraphs. After hitting .309/.400/.580 with 30 homers for the Albuquerque Isotopes in 2019 — that while doing a better job of using the whole field, with his pull percentage dropping from 44.4% at Double-A to 36.5% at Triple-A — he ranked 31st on FanGraphs’ Rockies list.

By major league standards, Ramos has 70-grade raw power, but the rest of his game is much less refined, particularly his speed (graded as a 30 by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel in December), defense (40), and hit tool (35 present value, 40 future value), due largely to a high strikeout rate (32.9% in 228 PA at Double-A, 28.0% in 503 PA at Triple-A). Heading into 2019, both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline saw him as a 45-grade prospect, but Longenhagen and McDaniel graded him as a 35+ in December. Translation: stock falling on a Quad-A type who has power but not the speed to play anywhere but first base (though multiple evaluators have noted his soft hands).

While that sounds like the kind of player who often winds up in the KBO, it should not go unremarked upon just how poorly the Rockies have done in staffing first base in recent years. Last year, Daniel Murphy, Mark Reynolds, Ryan McMahon and others combined for just an 88 wRC+ (26th in MLB) and 0.1 WAR (22nd). In 2018, Ian Desmond, McMahon, and others combined for an 80 wRC+ (28th) and -1.1 WAR (29th), while in 2017, Reynolds, Desmond and others combined for a 103 wRC (14th) and 0.9 WAR (20th). That’s -0.1 WAR over a three-year span, and while Reynolds came on the cheap, Desmond was paid $22 million in 2018 and Murphy $10 million in ’19. The Monforts could have done better setting the money on fire and playing McMahon (a former Top 100 prospect who was lighting up Triple-A as of 2017) or Ramos there to see what they had, particularly as an alternative to signing and playing Murphy.

The Rockies missed that boat, and Ramos, who would have been a minor league free agent after this season, signed a one-year deal with the Twins in January, guaranteeing him $300,000 plus a $50,000 signing bonus and incentives that can take the total up to $500,000. What’s particularly interesting is that he’s by far the youngest foreign-born position player in the league:

Foreign-Born Position Players in KBO
Name Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+
Roberto Ramos 라모스 Twins 25 91 .375 .451 .813 11.0% 19.8% 216
Jose Miguel Fernandez 페르난데스 페르난데스 Bears 32 106 .468 .500 .691 7.5% 7.5% 209
Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스 로하스 Wiz 30 103 .409 .456 .688 7.8% 22.3% 194
Preston Tucker 터커 터커 Tigers 29 106 .326 .396 .611 9.4% 12.3% 159
Aaron Altherr 알테어 알테어 Dinos 29 88 .269 .352 .513 8.0% 29.5% 123
Tyler Saladino 살라디노 살라디노 Lions 30 73 .250 .329 .438 6.8% 28.8% 99
Jamie Romak 로맥 로맥 Wyverns 34 97 .253 .361 .386 14.4% 20.6% 99
Dixon Machado 마차도 마차도 Giants 28 93 .210 .283 .407 7.5% 16.1% 75
Jared Hoying 호잉 호잉 Eagles 31 76 .225 .276 .352 6.6% 25.0% 63
Taylor Motter 모터 모터 Heroes 30 37 .114 .135 .200 2.7% 27.0% -24

Note that this time around, because I grabbed the data from our leaderboard, I’m using FanGraphs’ version of wRC+, which for the KBO does not yet incorporate park adjustments. Ramos is one of only two of these players without major league experience (Rojas is the other), but of greater significance is the fact that all but one other foreign-born position player besides him is at least 29, several years past the point of being considered a prospect. Ramos has passed out of that window himself, but he’s as young as they come by the standards of the position players who make the jump from the States. Per our data and that at Baseball-Reference, I dialed as far back as 2006 and couldn’t find another example of a foreign-born player who received any amount of significant playing time as Ramos at such a young age. Last year’s youngest foreign-born position players were Carlos Asuaje 아수아헤 and Christian Bethancourt 베탄코트, both in their age-27 seasons, while in 2018, it was Andy Burns 번즈 (age-27 season) and Michael Choice 초이스 (age-28 season); that pair were the youngest such players in 2017 as well.

Here it’s worth remarking that the KBO position player base is older than that of MLB, too. Via Baseball-Reference, last year’s league had a weighted age of 28.8 years old among position players, compared to 27.7 for the American League and 28.2 for the National League; the year before, the averages were 29.0 for the KBO, 28.2 for the AL, and 27.9 for the NL. This year’s KBO is averaging 29.4 years, and on our leaderboard page, just 12 of the 72 qualifiers are 25 or younger, with four of those 12 hailing from the KT Wiz, who only joined the league in 2015. Four teams don’t have a single lineup regular 25 or younger: the NC Dinos (first baseman Jin-sung Kang 강진성 is 26), SK Wyverns (outfielder Jin-gi Jeong 정진기 is 27), Doosan Bears (three regulars are 29), and Samsung Lions (two regulars are 29).

Perhaps Ramos’ arrival is a sign of the KBO becoming a more desirable option for younger foreign-born players, but one player hardly makes a trend. At any rate, he’s still young enough that a return to the US and a shot at the majors isn’t an unreasonable outcome — if, of course, he can shore up the weaknesses in his game and continue to demonstrate that he’s one of the league’s top hitters. As for those weaknesses, note that Ramos has cut his strikeout rate to 19.8%, though of course he’s playing in a more contact-centric league, where fastball velocities are lower; the average four-seam fastball velocity he’s faced, for example, is 143.0 km/h, or 88.9 mph. A quick-and-dirty set of recent K+% — indexing his strikeout rates to league average — yields 155 for his stint in Double-A (55% higher than average), 126 for Triple-A, and 112 for the KBO. That’s progress, though I don’t have any Baseball Savant-type data to tell you what he’s doing against higher-velocity stuff, not that the sample sizes would mean much after 23 games.

Likewise when it comes to his platoon splits. The book on Ramos is that he struggles against lefties, and indeed, he hit .204/.315/.548 with 10 homers in 108 PA against them in 2018, but a modestly more respectable .250/.331/.467 with six homers in 136 PA in ’19. So far in this young season, he’s 4-for-17 with two doubles, two homers, a walk and six strikeouts. Small samples, but it would seem he’s at least hitting the ball hard.

Ramos is powering a Twins lineup that entered Tuesday ranked third in scoring (6.17 runs per game) and first in wRC+ (121, via Statiz), doing so in what’s considered a pitcher-friendly park. The Twins share Seoul’s Jamsil Stadium with the Bears (for whom Fernandez is the big masher), and it’s known as the largest stadium in the league: 100 meters (328 feet) down the lines, 120 meters (394 feet) to left- and right-center, and 125 meters (410 feet) to dead center. But even with park adjustments, what stands out about the Twins’ lineup is that the heavy lifting is being done by relatively few hands. Besides Ramos, only three other regulars have a wRC+ of at least 100, namely left fielder (and MLB veteran) Hyun Soo Kim 김현수 (173 wRC+, on .391/.446/.576 hitting), right fielder
Eun-seong Chae 채은성 (131 wRC+, .319/.357/.516) and third baseman Min-sung Kim 김민성 (114 wRC+, .288/.382/.379). Center fielder Chun-woong Lee 이천웅, who last year led the team with 4.0 WAR while hitting for a 114 wRC+, is at just 95, while the other four regulars are at 82 or below.

That doesn’t sound like a continued recipe for success, though the team has been good on the run prevention side, at least by KBO standards. Their 4.65 runs per game allowed is the league’s second-lowest mark, and while their starters’ 4.59 ERA is middle of the pack, their relievers’ 3.53 mark is first by more than a run. That’s a topic for another day, however. For the moment, it’s worth keeping an eye upon Ramos given his prodigious power and his one-man youth movement.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

Ramos has been fun to watch so far. Hope he can parlay his success so far into a productive and profitable career, in the KBO or otherwise.

Easy to say in retrospect, but does seem like the Rockies should have given Ramos a shot at 1B instead of setting all that money on fire.

Ben Clemensmember
2 years ago
Reply to  nickolai

Also easy to say beforehand! Dan, to name one, was calling for that exact move last year. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Ramos is an intriguing prospect.