The Rays Interesting Bet On Colby Rasmus

Since this decade began, the home-run leaders among players who’ve recorded at least two-thirds of their games in center field are (in order) Adam Jones, Mike Trout, and Andrew McCutchen. Coming not too far after those three is Colby Rasmus, who’s authored 140 homers over the past seven seasons. Rasmus is coming off a pretty miserable 2016 season, during which he hit well below average while playing mostly in a left-field platoon before ending the season with a groin/hip injury that required surgery. As a result, the Houston Astros declined to make a qualifying offer to Rasmus like they did after his 25-homer, 117 wRC+ 2015 campaign, and the winter action on Rasmus seemed to match his own health: poor. The Tampa Bay Rays appear to have signed Rasmus for a very reasonable $5 million, with $2 million in incentives.

Coming up through the minors, Rasmus was at least a¬†four-tool player, with maybe a knock on his ability to hit for average. While ranking him the third-best prospect in baseball ahead of the 2009 season, Baseball America had this to say about Rasmus’ tools and his future:

Rasmus oozes big league talent and exhibits fluid athleticism at the plate and in the field. He has a balanced, potent swing from the left side and his young frame has filled out with strength, which has begun to turn some of his ropes into the gaps into shots launched over the wall. As he showed in big league camp, Rasmus has the plate discipline to be a leadoff man when he arrives in the majors and the extra-base thump to mature into a middle-of-the-order hitter. The same plus speed and instincts he shows on the bases are even more apparent in center field, where he’s a defensive standout. His glove is good enough to keep him in the lineup even when he’s scuffling at the plate.

Eight seasons and four MLB teams later, Rasmus hasn’t lived up to his promise, but he has been a mostly productive player, putting up league-average hitting numbers to go along with solid baserunning and decent defense. His 18.5 career WAR isn’t a terrible outcome before age 30 for just about any prospect. Per 600 plate appearances, Rasmus has been worth 2.8 WAR during his career. Even with his disastrous 2016 season, he was a 2.9 WAR/600 player in his two years with Astros.

After a contact-heavy, low-power rookie season, Rasmus quickly morphed into the three-true-outcome player we see today. More than 40% of his plate appearances over the last seven years have ended as walks, strikeouts, or home runs. The strikeouts have especially been high the past few seasons. Since 2013, the only players to record as many plate appearances and a higher strikeout rate than Rasmus’ 30.8% mark are sluggers Chris Davis and Chris Carter. Those guys have hit for quite a bit more power than Rasmus, although Rasmus can still make himself valuable running the bases and on defense.

Since Rasmus’ walk and strikeout numbers have been relatively consistent over the years, his offensive output has been highly reliant on success on contact, not only in the form of home runs but also as balls in play landing safely. The graph below shows the yearly numbers for Rasmus’ ISO, BABIP, and wOBA.


Just like 2011 and 2012, 2016 was one of Rasmus’ bad years on offense, as he saw his power and BABIP numbers fall well below his career averages. It is probably not a coincidence that, generally speaking, when his BABIP is down, his power is also down. Over the last three seasons, the first two being rather successful, Rasmus began pulling the ball at a much greater clip; 53% compared to about 45% prior to 2014. He’s always been a fly ball hitter, but those numbers fluctuated over the past few seasons with 2016. His exit velocity from 2015 to 2016 was roughly the same both overall and for fly balls and line drives. However, compared with last year, he was hitting fewer fly balls and generating fewer homers per fly ball.

Sometimes, long fly balls that don’t get out land for extra base hits, which is one of the reasons why extreme sluggers can run lower BABIPs, sinc all their hard hit balls go over the fence, but that wasn’t the case with Rasmus last year. Only 11 players with more than 400 plate appearances last season posted a BABIP worse than Rasmus’ .257 figure. Of those 11, six made up for that mark by hitting with power and producing an ISO above .200, while the other five had poor seasons like Rasmus, since low power and low BABIP is a rough combination.

We may be able to attribute some of Rasmus’ 2016 troubles to injuries. He had an ear problem that caused him to miss a month in the middle of the season, and then the groin/hip problem was likely hurting him all season. It’s also worth noting that in 2011, he missed time with a wrist injury, and also dealt with groin problems in 2012, which were his two worst offensive seasons prior to last year.

And there is some reason to think Rasmus did run into some bad luck with the BABIP last year–his xBABIP was .294, and on balls with an expected batting average between .200 and .500, per MLB Savant (league average: .342), Rasmus hit just .224.

Upping his BABIP a bit to something more typical for Rasmus moves his line from bad to mediocre, but he isn’t going to be above average unless he gets that power back. He’s a platoon player at this point of his career, with a career 109 wRC+ in roughly 3,000 PA against righties and an 81 wRC+ in roughly 1,000 PA against lefties. At worst, Rasmus should be a solid defender, likely decently above average playing in left field, so he at least has a lower offensive baseline that other outfielders on the market. Getting luck-neutral on balls in play with a slight return to his power might make him a decent player for the Rays, which seems to be what they’re betting on.

In Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza, Jr., and now Rasmus, the Rays have two lefties and one righty for two corner outfield slots, as well as some time at designated hitter. All three have had their ups and downs in their careers, but at 28, 28, and 30 years old, respectively, there is reason to think they should still have some potential for above average seasons.

The Rays already made a similar, higher upside play in signing Wilson Ramos to a reasonable deal. Tampa isn’t tying up massive amounts of payroll, even for them. They aren’t hurting their future or blocking anyone in the system. They certainly won’t be favorites for a playoff spot, but there is a decent amount of talent on this team, and if things break the right way, they should be able to contend for a Wild Card spot. This isn’t the kind of deal that will turn the franchise around, but given the Rays’ financial situation and their needs on the field, $5 million for Rasmus’ remaining upside is the kind of move worth making.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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His ISO will improve this year. he will be playing more than half his games in a dome, so less grease will evaporate from his body, allowing him to glide through air, turning singles to doubles, doubles to triples.