There hasn't been a ton of things that have left baseball fans shocked this season. The National League is being led by the Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers, and Giants; the American League by the Indians, Rangers and ... well, okay, the Orioles is a bit weird. Similarly the individual leaderboards have been as expected: Mike Trout leads most offensive categories, followed by other usual suspects like Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, and Jose Altuve. Yawn! Ho hum. There's even a predictable pair of Nationals up there, and just as we suspected, it's Daniel Murphy and Bry----errr, Wilson Ramos!
Despite a drop off in production from Bryce Harper (at least if you measure by the 23-year-old's own lofty standards (or if you ignore all stats other than batting average), the Nationals still rank fourth in the NL in runs scored, and in large part to the offensive explosion from their catcher, Wilson Ramos. Surprisingly, it is Ramos and not Harper who joins Murphy in the top 10 by wRC+ (151).
To truly understand how unlikely it is to see Ramos' name among the league leaders in offensive production, let's turn back the clock to this offseason. Along with the Rangers, the Nationals were one of a pair of teams that were constantly connected to former Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The train of thought was that not only did the Nationals have the prospects needed to buy Lucroy's services, they also had a desperate need for help at catcher. The incumbent, Ramos, was two years removed from a league average season and was coming off a 2015 campaign in which he ranked 139th among 141 qualifiers in wRC+ with an abhorrent 63.
That's really bad! It is the 38th worst season by any player in any year that began with the number two, tied with 2007 Endy Chavez and 2003 Tony Pena. Players that are performing that poorly this season include Ryan Howard and Gerardo Parra. Jason Heyward, whom any Cubs fan will tell you *at great length* has had a massively disappointing season, is hitting much better than Ramos was last season.
This season, Ramos has not only been good enough to knock Washington out of the Lucroy sweepstakes, he's been arguably the best catcher in the league. Offensively, he leads all catchers in the three triple slash columns, home runs, wRC+ and fWAR. He's also added 4.0 framing runs and ranks among the league leaders in caught stealing percentage. Just where in the dang heck do you think you're going, Dee Gordon?
What's changed for Ramos? Well, one piece of the puzzle is the whim of the baseball gods. Last year, it seems Ramos was largely a victim of poor cluster luck. He was still spraying the ball to all fields as he always has (and remains doing so), and there wasn't much difference in his batted ball velocity between this year and last, the two years for which such data are available. His BABIP last season was .256, nearly 40 points lower than his career average. This season it's .350, significantly higher than his career norms. Looking at his batted ball type, his spray chart, etc. reveals that the only significant change on balls that are put in play has been a healthy dose of magic. His true talent in that area almost certainly lies somewhere between this season and last.
That's a pretty boring assessment: he was unlucky last year and therefore looked bad, and he's been lucky this year, and therefore good. There has, however, been significant movement in some of the numbers that the luck of a bouncing ball doesn't factor into. Our Spencer Bingol talked about his offseason eye surgery a couple of months ago, and now here in the final third of the season we can safely remove the small sample size qualifier from those improvements.
Ramos has always had an above average strikeout rate, but this season he's cut his it nearly in half to 12.9%, down from 20.0% a year ago. And while his 7.5% walk rate is still slightly below league average, he's raised it by over three points from last season's 4.2%, ROLL THE FOOTAGE:
|2015||36.4 %||74.4 %||53.8 %||60.6 %||87.3 %||77.5 %||45.8 %||65.9 %||12.1 %|
|2016||28.8 %||73.5 %||49.8 %||70.0 %||88.7 %||83.0 %||47.0 %||60.0 %||8.5 %|
|Career||34.6 %||73.7 %||52.6 %||65.6 %||87.6 %||79.8 %||45.9 %||63.7 %||10.6 %|
As we can see here Ramos' swing rate on balls outside the zone has dipped significantly, and his contact rate has gone up overall, leading to a massive drop in his swinging strike rate. This makes sense: if you swing at less balls and make contact when you do swing, and you're likely to walk more and strikeout less.
These changes, in contrast to his batted ball luck, look real, especially when linked to such an obviously related matter as LASIK surgery. As it turns out, it is easier to hit baseballs if you can see them. Ramos, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, has made himself exactly one (1) entire boatload of money with his play this year, making his perhaps the most lucrative elective procedure since Kim Kardashian-West augmented her look. More relevantly to this season, his improvements have the Nationals in the driver's seat in the AL East and he could help bring a world championship to our nation's capital for the first time since 1924.
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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, BP Milwaukee and Disciples of Uecker. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke.