The Importance of Wilson Ramos

There are a few reasons behind the Washington Nationals’ strong start: namely, the pitching has been great and the key players have been healthy and generally playing well. But one major component of this successful stretch has been the strong all-around play of starting catcher Wilson Ramos, who’s doing great work as both a run-producer and a run-preventer.

As a run-producer

Ramos has always had tremendous power. As far as contact-making, he has never been Buster Posey nor will he ever be – nor are most catchers, nor are most hitters in general. Fortunately, Ramos doesn’t have to comp with a future Hall of Famer to be valuable. He does have to hit a little – and even a little was more than he managed to do in his generally miserable 2015.

It’s still early enough that it’s hard to read much into the numbers, which take much longer than 24 plate appearances to stabilize and become “signals.” But here’s some context:

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He’s always going to whiff, and he’s never going to draw many walks. His power has always been there and the fact that it vanished in 2015 was a bit of a mystery. He had complained about not being able to pick up the ball, and seemed to be chasing terrible pitches; his contact on balls outside the strike zone fell to a career-low 54 percent, a number roughly 10 percentage points off his career mark (62.2 percent.)

Ramos had LASIK surgery before spring training and the results bear watching.

Thus far, he’s posting an overall contact rate nearly a full 11 points higher than his 2015 figure (88.1 percent versus 77.4 percent.) Inside the zone, Ramos is putting bat on ball 96.6 percent of the time – that number is a career best by a wide margin, and it surely will come down over time, but it represents an uptick to keep an eye on. He has also been much more effective at hitting balls outside the zone; last year his O-Zone contact rate fell to about 54 percent, and he’s up around 69 percent now.

The point is simple: even with so few plate appearances under his belt, there are signs he’s seeing the ball better, and that will merely deepen what is shaping up to be a dangerous Nationals lineup.

As a run-preventer

Ramos’ elite run-stopping skills really take three different forms: his ability to play in-game tactician and therapist with the pitching staff, his ability to erase baserunners, and his ability to field his position. He hasn’t had too many difficult plays at the plate yet, but he certainly has done a great deal of the first two.

Nationals pitchers generally speak highly of “Willie.” Wednesday night’s game against the Braves was a perfect example of how he can wrangle a great performance out of an imperfect evening. Through the first handful of innings, starter Tanner Roark had been missing high in the strike zone. The Braves were putting bat on ball, but the Nationals defense was eating them up.

Ramos helped get things settled – he helped get Roark back to what seems to be his trademark: a two-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s and has filthy movement. The pitch is especially valuable against lefties and the Braves threw out a lineup that night loaded with them. By the end of his performance, Roark had worked seven shutout innings – even managing to freeze Braves star Freddie Freeman (all of the strikes in that at-bat, including the punch-out pitch, were two-seam fastballs in the 90-92mph velocity range).

It’s difficult to quantify game-calling as a skill, but considering that Ramos was also behind the plate for Jordan Zimmerman‘s no-hitter in 2014 and two more no-hitters in 2015 – one has to ask if that’s more than mere coincidence.

When pitchers do make mistakes, Ramos excels at making those mistakes vanish by throwing out baserunners. He has flashed his skills in this area a few times so far. Here he is against one of the game’s most dangerous leadoff hitters, Miami’s Dee Gordon. And he did it again against Atlanta’s Mallex Smith.

Against Gordon, the play wasn’t especially close, and it eliminated a run in the sense that one of the fastest and most disruptive players in the game was removed from the bases entirely. Smith was thrown out at the top of the fourth inning of Sunday’s game against Atlanta. The game was tied 4-4 at the time and Scherzer was generally out-of-sync and struggling. The extremely fast Smith would’ve been the go-ahead run in scoring position, but Ramos neutered him, and the inning ended with no damage done.

These subtle plays not only preserve individual games, they also have a cumulative, chilling effect on aggressive baserunning going forward as teams curtail or simply cease challenging Ramos. Of course, it’s not really new that Ramos is an elite defender. Among all qualified catchers in 2015, he notched 11.1 defensive runs saved, trailing only Buster Posey and Salvador Perez. That certainly looks to continue in 2016.

In sum, a healthy Ramos coming off a healthy offseason, with literally revamped eyesight, is a multi-purpose weapon for the Nationals that the club simply didn’t have in 2015.

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