Last night, the Tampa Bay Rays signed Wilson Ramos for two years and $12 million, with nearly $18.25 million available in all if he meets certain incentives. Ramos represented an interesting case for potential suitors. At 29, he’d just produced the best season of his career. He’d also sustained, and is currently rehabbing, the worst injury of his career — one that will prevent him from returning until midseason at best. From the Rays’ perspective, the move is unusual in at least one way, too: they just signed a catcher who can hit.
Were Ramos to repeat his 2016 campaign, he’d immediately become the best catcher the Rays have ever had. Were he to repeat his second-best season, he’d become the best catcher the Rays ever had. Were he to repeat his third-best season, Ramos would be the third-best catcher the Rays have ever had. By wins above replacement, Ramos — once he’s healthy in 2018 — is very likely to become the best Rays catcher ever. Even if he just hits to his career level (exactly league average), once he sees 100 plate appearances, he’ll be the best hitting catcher the Rays have ever had.
Of course, there’s a lot more going on than offense and positional value in this deal, which slots in nicely with the two-year, $10-ish million contracts that have been handed out to volatile veterans like Matt Joyce, Steve Pearce, and Sean Rodriguez. There’s plenty to worry about, just like in those deals.
For one, Ramos seems like he might be one of the worst framers the Rays have ever had. That difference might be overstated. Last year, he was 24th in Baseball Prospectus’ catcher-framing metric, two behind Rays catcher Curt Casali, and five ahead of Luke Maile. Considering that 63 catchers received 2000 framing chances, it’s more correct to say that he’s slightly above average, just like the two catchers the club deployed last year.
There’s no guarantee he’ll even catch, of course. He’s coming off of a complicated surgery to repair not only his anterior cruciate ligament, but also his medial meniscus and lateral meniscus. The Rays probably don’t expect him back until July, and then, with his second ACL surgery behind him, they’ll find out what he can do behind the dish.
Here’s the thing. The Rays’ designated hitters produced batting lines that were 11% worse than league average last year. So if Ramos can approximate league average there, he’ll still have value to the team. Rays first baseman Brad Miller isn’t a great defensive middle infielder, but he could have some defensive value around the diamond if the team plays Ramos at first base, too. If his bat is as good as it was last year (24% better than league average), Ramos will play somewhere.
Will his bat be as good as it was last year again? He’s always been a good hitter for a catcher, but he almost doubled his offense with respect to the league from 2015 to 2016, on the back of an improved workout regimen and Lasik eye surgery. You might roll your eyes at the last item — we’ve heard this sort of thing from Dan Uggla and others before — but it really looks like the eyes, even more than anything mechanical or physical, were the key to his season.
|Average Launch Angle||5.5||5.6|
|Average Exit Velocity||91.3||91.7|
|% Home Run Angles||18.6%||20.2%|
|% Line Drive Angles||17.6%||27.5%|
Line Drive Angles = 10-25 degrees
Ramos’s average launch angle and exit velocity were nearly identical in 2015 and -16. He distributed his launch angles differently and hit more line drives in 2016, but that figure is prone to considerable variation from year to year. The most notable difference between the two years is the plate discipline: Ramos swung at fewer pitches outside the zone than ever before. By a decent margin, too. In addition to producing a higher walk rate, that sort of decision-making can also beget better contact. (Which itself might lead to a higher true-talent line-drive rate.)
We don’t have a comprehensive database of Lasik guys, but there have been players, like Jhonny Peralta, who appear to have benefited greatly from the surgery. If Ramos comes back all the way physically, catches, and retains this ability to discern strikes, he’ll be the best overall catcher the Rays have ever had. That seems worth a $12 million bet.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.