Opinion Pieces

Free Agent Matchmaker: Catcher

For 26 of 30 teams, the season has come to a disappointing end. While the Red Sox, Astros, Brewers, and Dodgers battle for a shot at capturing the World Series title, the rest of the players are drinking Mai Tais in Bora Bora. While players deserve this downtime after the most grueling regular season schedule in all of sports, the team executives are rarely afforded this luxury. Instead, the teams that fell short of their World Series aspirations have shifted their focus to making sure they have an improved roster in 2019.

The process of revamping a ball club for an upcoming season varies team by team, with some teams having a glaring need in which one free agent signing could fix, whereas other teams may require a total overhaul if they want to have a chance to contend the following season.

This purpose of this article is to look at one free agent at each position and match him with a team that could use an upgrade at that position. For the most part, this article will avoid rehashing the monotonous discussions surrounding Harper and Machado, because quite frankly, there is no angle I could provide regarding those two that hasn’t already been rehashed countless times. 

While need and fit are the key criteria to form a match between team and player in this article, financial considerations and other intangible factors will be factored in as well.

On October 15th, I wrote an in-depth article about the value Yasmani Grandal will have in the free agent market, reaching the conclusion that he will end up with the Braves. While Grandal’s elite pitch framing and offense made him an obvious choice to write about, finding a second free agent catcher that is worthy of an article is much more difficult.

On one hand, I could write about reigning Gold Glover Martin Maldonado and speculate about the money he will earn despite being devoid of any offensive skill set. On the other hand, there is Wilson Ramos, whose contributions with the bat make him a much more intriguing free agent this offseason.

In his first five seasons (2011-2015) Ramos was a serviceable catcher. His defense was adequate according to most advanced metrics and he posted a 97 wRC+, a 7% improvement above the 90 wRC+ catchers posted league-wide during that time frame. Ramos was not elite, but he was above average offensive catcher during the early part of his career. This is impressive in its own right, but it is downright preposterous when you consider he was getting by for the most part without his vision. 

After the 2014 season, Ramos started noticing some issues with his eyesight, but rather than immediately opting for surgery, he played out the 2015 campaign. It became evident almost immediately that Ramos had made the wrong decision as his offensive performance took a complete nosedive. In fact, his 63 wRC+ was 31% worse than any other season in his career and ranked him as the third worst hitter in baseball. Turns out hitting isn’t easy when you can’t see the ball.

After losing a year-long battle to stubbornness, Ramos decided it would be best to get Lasik eye surgery heading into his walk year. You probably won’t be surprised to find out what followed. He started to hit again! With his vision fully intact, Ramos improved in just about every offensive category. He leads catchers with a 152 wRC+, posted a career-high ISO at .224, and had the best hard-hit rate of his career. By being able to see the ball more clearly, his plate discipline drastically improved and became the key to his success.

It comes as no surprise that actually being able to see the ball would lead to significant improvement in Ramos’ ability to both lay off pitches outside the zone as well as make contract on the swings he does take. The numbers illustrate these improvements:

Wilson Ramos’ Plate Discipline Pre-Lasik vs. Post Lasik:

K% BB% Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
Pre Lasik 20.0% 4.2% 77.4% 35.4% 56.1%
Post Lask 15.1% 6.7% 82.0% 31.6% 64.5%

Ramos was rewarded by being selected to his first All-Star game in 2016 and even received some MVP votes by the end of the year. In a year’s time, he went from being a possible DFA candidate to one of the best catchers in the National League. Who would’ve thought being able to see what you are trying to hit would be so important?

Despite Ramos’ incredible turnaround, Ramos breakout 2016 campaign ended prematurely after he tore his ACL and meniscus just weeks before the end of the season, which for him, meant weeks before hitting free agency. To make matters worse, Ramos declined a three year, 30 million dollar deal from the Nationals just days before under the assumption that he could have earned more on the open market. 

Despite being sidelined for a minimum of nine months, Ramos had proven enough during the 2016 campaign to still receive a 2 year, 16 million dollar deal from the Rays that offseason. While skeptics criticized the decision to sign a catcher to a two-year deal after just suffering a serious knee injury, the Rays faith in Ramos ability ultimately paid off. By channeling his adversity into motivation, Ramos regained the form that made him an All-Star just two years prior. In a classic Tampa Bay midseason sell-off, the club shipped Ramos to the Phillies where he continued to rake. Despite recovering from a serious knee injury, Ramos lead all catchers in wRC+ and OPS, albeit in just 111 games played.

Through all the obstacles that Ramos has faced during his career (I didn’t even discuss an incident in which he was abducted in his home country of Venezuela, but I highly recommended checking out that story), he is once again poised to receive a nice contract from any team in search of help at catcher. 

Despite being far and away the best offensive catcher available on the free agent market, there are other aspects of his game that will suppress his value in contract negotiations. First and foremost, Ramos has never carried a reputation as a good defensive catcher. According to Statcorner, the negative run value he accrued with the Rays combined with his poor framing metrics, cost his team -11 runs, ranking him among the worst 20 catchers in the league.

While his pitch framing has been consistently below average throughout his career, he also has struggled at times with blocking pitches and throwing out base stealers. Using the comprehensive advanced catcher reports at Baseball Prospectus, we see that Ramos ranks slightly below average in just about every aspect of catching. His Blocking Runs ranked 71st in baseball with a run value of -0.1, while the runs he saved for his pitchers by throwing out would be base stealers saved the Rays a total of 0.1 runs this year. In total, Ramos ranked 77th in FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) among 117 qualified catchers this season. 

Unfortunately, the physical toll on catchers creates a steeper aging curve, which suggests to me that teams will be reluctant to offer Ramos more than a two-year deal. Based on recent contracts that veteran catcher have received, I would expect Ramos to earn receive something to the tune of 2 years, 13 million or perhaps a one year, 10 million dollar deal with a club option for a second year. 

Of all the catcher-needy teams currently scouring the market for quality backstops, I believe that Ramos will end up with the Angels. After the Halos dealt Martin Maldonado to the Astros at this year’s deadline, the Halos catching situation became a carousel of minor league non-prospects.  The only obstacle for this deal being a slam dunk is the never-ending saga of Albert Pujols. With Ramos past injury history and declining defensive ability behind the plate, he will need to play DH on occasion. However, with Pujols unfathomably still occupying that role on a regular basis, there may be too many guys and not enough spots, especially if Ohtani is healthy enough to hit at any point next season.

The situation is not perfect, but it makes sense. Perhaps signing Ramos could even be the hint that Pujols needs that it may be time for him to hang up his spikes. 

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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