clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Wilson Ramos Fixed His Vision and Became a Star

Getty Images
Getty Images

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.

2 Bartolo Colón walked.

If we’re being honest, Colón walks every time he runs the bases, but he drew his first career base on balls on Monday night off Arizona’s Robbie Ray. The 43-year-old Colón, a 19-year veteran, had gone without a walk in his first 281 career plate appearances, which was a major league record. Now, the record for most plate appearances without a walk belongs to Tracy Stallard, who also gave up Roger Maris’s 61st home run in 1961.

Stallard’s total of 258 plate appearances without a walk is more than double the total of the active leader, Chris Rusin, who sits at 114. Almost everyone who’s within 50 of Stallard played back in the days when you needed more than four balls for a walk. In fact, the second man on the list played so long ago that I don’t know if he debuted in 1871, or if that’s just how far back Baseball-Reference has data. B-Ref certainly doesn’t know which hand he threw with. Anyway, I really only bring this up because his name is Count Sensenderfer, and it’s too good a name not to share.

2 Wilson Ramos is out of sight.

It’s very difficult not to root for Ramos after the career he’s had.

He came to Washington from Minnesota in 2010 for Matt Capps, in one of the last deals in which a contender traded a big-time prospect for a “proven closer” with big save totals but shaky peripheral numbers. Ramos arrived as a big league–ready catcher who’d been on the latest two versions of Baseball America’s top-100 list, and he stepped into Washington’s lineup pretty much immediately. In 2011, he hit .267/.334/.445 as a 23-year-old, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, and it looked like Ramos had established himself as a valuable piece of the supporting cast that would vault Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to World Series glory.

Then Ramos went back home to Venezuela that offseason and got kidnapped. Like, literally abducted by bandits and held for ransom for two days until a group of commandos rescued him. Over the next four seasons — when he was supposed to be entering his prime — Ramos struggled. He couldn’t stay healthy from 2012 to 2014, suffering injuries to his knee and thigh (which are kind of important if you want to catch) and hamate bone (which is important if you want to grip a bat). Those issues limited him to only 191 games over three years, and when he finally did play a full season, in 2015, he hit .229/.258/.358.

Then, this past offseason, Ramos got Lasik surgery, and everything changed. Turns out having good vision helps you play baseball, too.

Since the strike, only two rookie catchers, age 23 or younger, have put up at least 110 OPS+ in at least 400 plate appearances: Ramos and Buster Posey. Denuded of his ability to use his knees, hamstrings, wrists, or eyes, Ramos sucked. But now that all of those body parts are working for the first time since that age-23 season, he’s been about as good as Posey.

If you wear glasses, you probably remember exactly where you were when you realized you needed them, and you probably remember how everything just looked sharper with them on. The funniest thing about Ramos’s breakout year is that he’s better in exactly the ways you’d expect a baseball player to improve if he started wearing glasses. His walk rate’s up from 4.2 percent in 2015 to 7.4 percent in 2016, and his strikeout rate’s gone down from 20 percent to 12.6. In 2015, he swung at 36.4 percent of pitches outside the zone, but he’s reduced that to 28.9 percent this year, while his contact rate on all swings is up from 77.5 percent to 83.7 percent, which is by far a career high. There’s more to hitting than raw contact rate, but just in terms of getting the bat on the ball, he’s gone from about Jeff Francoeur’s career average to Michael Young’s career average in one season.

It’s not that nobody has noticed — he made the All-Star team, after all — but to a certain extent, Ramos has flown under the radar. There are other interesting things going on with the Nationals: Strasburg’s contract extension, Jayson Werth’s streak of reaching base in 44 straight games (and counting), Lucas Giolito’s debut, Max Scherzer’s second-straight outstanding season, and Daniel Murphy’s inexplicable .348/.388/.611 line. Bryce Harper also started the season like 2004 Barry Bonds, but his power numbers have dropped off to something more like 2004 Neifi Pérez.

The Nationals themselves are running away with the NL East in such a manner that they’d be getting a lot more nationwide press if not for the Cubs being even better. There’s only so much bandwidth, and not only are Ramos’s teammates taking up a lot of it, but the Nationals aren’t getting as much as a team of that quality might ordinarily.

Amid all that, Ramos has quietly been building a hell of a free-agent case. Sure, the injury history’s kind of rough, but he is a 29-year-old catcher with a 140 OPS+. Nobody else at the position, including Posey and Jonathan Lucroy, is within 10 points of that this year, and it’s not like Ramos came out of nowhere; he’s a former top-100 prospect who, again, just couldn’t stay healthy.

How much could he make? It’s tough to find comparisons, because the only two $100 million contracts ever given to catchers (eight years, $184 million to Joe Mauer and nine years, $167 million to Posey) were both extensions, not free-agent deals.

The upcoming free-agent class is very thin. Not only would Ramos be the best catcher on the market, he might be the best player, full stop, and his ability to put up middle-of-the-order numbers from behind the plate would make him valuable to the vast majority of teams. Even with only the one good season to lean on, it’s not hard to imagine Ramos pulling down $100 million just by hitting the market at the right time.

That should cover the cost of a trip to the optometrist.

3 Francisco Mejia goes partial DiMaggio.

Speaking of catchers who are mashing, the guy who was supposed to headline Cleveland’s package for Jonathan Lucroy is back in the headlines. When the trade got nixed, Mejia, the 20-year-old switch hitter, had split a 42-game hitting streak across two levels. He eventually made it all the way to 50 games before he went 0-for-3 with a walk against Winston-Salem on Sunday.

It’s hard to make headline news in A-ball, but this hitting streak is really a remarkable achievement. Mejia’s streak is the longest in minor league history since 1954, and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-gamer in 1941 remains the only 50-game hitting streak in the past 100 years of major league play. Only two others (George Sisler in 1922 and Pete Rose in 1978) even got as far as 40 in the majors.

Just getting within a week of DiMaggio is impressive, even more so as a catcher who got promoted in the middle of the streak. A run like this is even rarer than a Bartolo Colón walk.

4 T.J. Friedl falls through the cracks.

Two weeks ago, the Reds signed outfielder T.J. Friedl as an undrafted free agent for $732,500, which is the largest sum ever given to an undrafted player. Baseball isn’t like the other major sports, where undrafted free agents routinely turn into solid players or even stars. Not only is the draft 40 rounds long, but you also don’t have to file or declare; you’re just eligible if you meet certain criteria. And in Friedl’s case, you can be draft-eligible without it being common knowledge.

As a sophomore outfielder for the University of Nevada, Friedl was one of this past season’s breakout collegiate players. After a so-so year as a freshman and then taking a redshirt in 2015, he hit .401/.494/.563, which earned him an invitation to the collegiate national team, where the top college underclassmen traditionally play their summer ball.

That redshirt year meant that Friedl was technically eligible for this year’s draft. Usually, only juniors and seniors are eligible to be drafted out of four-year schools, but the rule actually says that any player at those schools who either (1) has been in school for three years or (2) turns 21 within 45 days of the draft is free to be selected. Last year, for instance, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi was a draft-eligible sophomore by virtue of his early birthday.

Benintendi was also a relative unknown coming into his draft year, but he played in the SEC for an Arkansas team that made it to the College World Series, and was therefore as high-profile a college prospect as you could imagine. Scouts made sure to check his age, even if it wasn’t on his Arkansas bio.

Friedl’s status as a redshirt sophomore was on his Nevada bio, but redshirt status tends not to appear on either the rosters or stat sheets that college sports information departments pass out at games. And while Nevada’s a fine program that produced first-rounder Braden Shipley in 2014, it doesn’t get the scouting or media attention Arkansas does, so there were just fewer people digging around to discover that Friedl was actually in the draft.

Apparently, Friedl himself didn’t even know he was eligible until days before the draft, nor did many, if not most, MLB teams. The information was out there, but only in places where you’d have to look for it specifically. So, although he earned a second-round grade from FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen, Friedl slipped all the way through the cracks.

Modern scouts are almost mystical figures, roaming the countryside with an encyclopedic knowledge of the players they see, like Gandalf in a golf shirt and sunglasses. They report back to savantlike executives with multimillion-dollar budgets and preposterously powerful databases at their disposal. It’s hard to imagine an apparatus like that just not knowing Friedl had redshirted, but this really happened.

If anything, this speaks to the sheer size of amateur baseball in the United States — there are about 300 Division I college baseball programs, plus lower-division schools, the NAIA, junior colleges, and innumerable high schools. That’s an unfathomable amount of chaff to sift through before you find the 1,216 kids who eventually end up as draft-day wheat.

5 The WPA Graph of the Week goes to the Orioles and Giants.

Jonathan Schoop’s home run capped a string of seven unanswered runs for the Orioles, who won 8–7 after trailing 7–1 through six innings.

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

With his team down two runs, Schoop came up with two men on and two outs in the top of the ninth, and he gave Santiago Casilla the end-of-the-movie treatment with a three-run home run. That single play increased Baltimore’s win probability from 6.5 to 84.2 percent.

Oh, and Zach Britton, whose case for Cy Young — and according to Ben Lindbergh, MVP — rests largely on WPA, tacked on another 0.16 of WPA to his total with a save in the bottom of the inning.

6 Dansby Swanson is coming up.

It’s happening!

The no. 1 pick in the 2015 draft is coming to the big leagues. And the Vanderbilt product is going to be a star.

First of all, he’s going to have the best hair in baseball from the moment he takes the field. Swanson looks like the lead in a WB teen drama from 2003. Then there’s the local boy factor — Swanson went to high school in Marietta, Georgia, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, only about 15 minutes’ drive from the site of the Braves’ new stadium. (Unless you try to drive there at rush hour, in which case it’ll take anywhere from half an hour to six days. Not that it matters, because the Braves purposely built a ballpark that’s only accessible by car, then didn’t bother to build any parking lots.)

But most importantly, Swanson, acquired in the Shelby Miller trade this past offseason, can flat out play. The newest addition to the golden age of shortstops, he’s not quite as good a pure hitter as Houston’s Alex Bregman, who went no. 2 in last year’s draft, but Swanson is bigger, faster, and stronger. And he hits for more power. For better or worse, the Braves dismantled a competitive team to go all in on a vision of the future that’s still a long ways off, but Swanson is the key figure in that rebuild.

7 Joe Nathan is coming back home.

The San Francisco Giants just signed right-handed pitcher Joe Nathan to a minor league deal. It can’t hurt — minor league deals are afterthoughts, and Nathan might still have something left in the tank.

The 41-year-old Nathan spent more than eight years in the Giants’ organization before they traded him, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski. Liriano and Nathan became All-Stars, while Pierzynski talked his way out of town in one year, so Giants fans are still a little touchy about that trade.

Over his first six years with the Twins, Nathan might have been the best relief pitcher in baseball, with a 237 ERA+, 11.1 K/9 against 5.8 H/9, and 246 saves. Of course, he played in Minnesota, and by that point in time, we’d just sort of anointed Mariano Rivera as the best relief pitcher in baseball, so Nathan never got his fair due.

Now, the odds for a comeback aren’t great: Nathan’s pitched a total of 2.1 innings in the big leagues over the past two years, and 2013 was the last time he pitched effectively. But even after all that success earlier in his career, Nathan’s still chasing a roster spot at age 41. I’d have given up by now.

8 Chase Utley came home, too, and hell’s comin’ with him.

Tuesday night was Chase Utley’s first game in Philadelphia since the veteran second baseman was traded to the Dodgers last year. Utley is the best Phillie since Mike Schmidt, and he was also one of the city’s most popular athletes — and that appears to still be true.

Utley came up to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” as was customary during his Phillies career, and he hit two home runs, including a seventh-inning grand slam off Michael Mariot.

Certainly Phillies fans would’ve preferred Utley to have hit his home runs in an eventual Dodgers loss, but, particularly in a lost season for the home team, there’s no reason not to enjoy a throwback night for a fan favorite. The operative unit of fandom might be the team, but the team is nothing without the individuals that constitute it, and it’s nice to see that we continue to love those individuals when they’ve moved on to the next phase of their careers.

9 This is a big week for names.

Right-handed pitcher Damien Magnifico made his debut with the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night, and the 25-year-old might now be the big leaguer whose name most sounds like the hero of a Harry Potter–style fantasy bildungsroman written in 2006 by someone who listened to nothing but AFI’s Sing the Sorrow while writing.

Also of note is another right-handed pitcher, a rising high school senior from Kansas named Zebulon Vermillion, who pitched last week at the Area Code Games, one of the major high school scouting showcases. Somehow, Zebulon Vermillion is not the title character in a hit 1959 western of the same name, starring Anthony Quinn and William Holden.

I can’t get enough of these names. Not that you’d for a second want to go through a normal person’s life being named Damien Magnifico, but if you’re a professional athlete, you can totally pull it off.