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What might a reasonable extension for the Nationals' Wilson Ramos look like?

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Through ten weeks, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos is doing exactly what players want to do in their walk year. He appears to be well on his way to a career best season across the board, which should boost his value on the free agent market.

Every player wishes they could have their career year right before they hit free agency. Wilson Ramos is living the dream right now.
Every player wishes they could have their career year right before they hit free agency. Wilson Ramos is living the dream right now.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout Wilson Ramos' first five (plus) seasons with the Washington Nationals, it always felt like he never quite lived up to his potential. This isn't to say that Ramos was bad, or even below average. It just always felt like something held him back. Injuries have probably been the biggest culprit, as Ramos has been limited to fewer than ninety games in three of his first five full seasons. From 2012-2014, Ramos was pretty much a walking injury....

  • He tore his ACL and MCL in May of 2012, ending his season
  • Ramos missed about two months due to hamstring injuries in 2013, spending two separate stints on the disabled list
  • He missed about six more weeks to begin 2014 after breaking his hand (hamate bone) on opening day

While we can give Ramos a bit of a pass for never really emerging as the star the Nats hoped he would become when they acquired him for Matt Capps because of those injuries, it would be negligent to overlook how poorly Ramos performed in 2015 as well.

Last season, Ramos stayed healthy all year for the first time since his rookie season, notching a career high 128 games played and 504 plate appearances. Unfortunately, his offensive production fell off a cliff. Ramos hit just .229/.258/.358. His 63 wRC+ ranked 139th out of 141 qualifiers for the batting title.

Let's have a look at Ramos' first six years, including the 22 games he played between Minnesota and the Nats in his debut season of 2010.

Year G PA HR R RBI BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2010 22 82 1 5 5 2.4% 14.6% .127 .318 .278 .305 .405 .313 91
2011 113 435 15 48 52 8.7% 17.5% .177 .297 .267 .334 .445 .335 111
2012 25 96 3 11 10 12.5% 19.8% .133 .306 .265 .354 .398 .326 103
2013 78 303 16 29 59 5.0% 13.9% .199 .270 .272 .307 .470 .337 113
2014 88 361 11 32 47 4.7% 15.8% .132 .290 .267 .299 .399 .306 93
2015 128 504 15 41 68 4.2% 20.0% .128 .256 .229 .258 .358 .265 63
Totals 454 1781 61 166 241 5.9% 17.2% .153 .281 .258 .301 .411 .308 93

A few things jump off the page right away that could explain what happened to the Buffalo last season.

Walk Rate

With the exception of the 25-game sample in 2012, Ramos' walk rate has been in pretty severe decline since his rookie year. Of course, it appears that his rookie year will always be a bit of an exception in that particular category. Ramos batted eighth for much of that season, and 8 of his 38 walks that year were intentional passes. Several more were probably spots where he was being pitched around in front of the pitcher batting behind him. Still, his walk rate cratered all the way to 4.2% last season.

Strikeout Rate

Ramos also had a career worst strikeout rate in 2015. striking out 20% of the time. While his chase rate (O-Swing%) of 36.4% was only slightly higher than his career rate of 35.3%, his contact rate on those swings (60.6%) was far and away a career low... 4.7% below his career norm of 65.3%. His contact rate within the strike zone stayed pretty steady at 87.3% (career 87.6%), but those struggles to make contact on pitches out of the zone played a major role in his worst strikeout rate of his career.

BABIP

If Ramos wasn't making as much contact on those pitches out of the zone, it should mean that the balls he did make contact with were better pitches to hit and ended up falling in more often, right? Nope. His .256 BABIP last season was a career low. It seems a bit odd, as Ramos had a higher line drive rate than his career norms (19.6%) and a slightly higher ground ball rate as well (55.5%). As Ramos isn't exactly fleet of foot, the ground ball rate shouldn't bring that much of an advantage, but grounders tend to get through more often than fly balls tend to drop in. If one thing jumps out in his batted ball profile from 2015, it's that he seemed to sacrifice a lot of his hard contact (26.4%, career 30.3%) for medium contact (58.1%, a career high by 5.7%).

If a player strikes out more often than he ever has and has the worst BABIP of his career, he's going to be in for a rough season... particularly if he's allergic to walks.

Ramos also turned in his lowest season-long ISO (.128) since his brief debut season in 2010, though it was really just a few points shy of his 2014 showing.

The Rebound

It's safe to say that Wilson Ramos has rebounded in 2016....

Year G PA HR R RBI BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2016 54 204 10 26 37 6.9% 12.3% .218 .344 .335 .382 .553 .398 151

Do you remember how I pointed out above that Ramos' 63 wRC+ in 2015 was 139th out of 141 qualifiers? He's 13th in MLB so far in 2016 with his 151 wRC+. The second best catcher by wRC+ so far in 2016 (Jonathan Lucroy) has a 136 wRC+. Is Ramos the best offensive catcher in baseball? In all honesty, he probably isn't, but he has been so far this season.

Note how the strikeout rate has bounced back (and then some) in 2016. His walk rate of 6.9% is up 2.4% from his three year average (2013-2015). He's turning in a career best year so far with the .218 ISO as well. Will his BABIP regress a bit? Almost certainly. Ramos' career BABIP is .287, and he's never had a season with 100+ PA where it's been higher than .297. Still, his batted ball profile indicates that his BABIP gains may not all be a mirage. He's managed a 21.3% line drive rate (career 18.6%) and 34.8% hard hit rate (30.3% career average). It's doubtful his BABIP will crater to 2015 levels as long as he keeps hitting the ball like he has.

Was it the LASIK? I think we can reasonably attribute some of Ramos' success in 2016 to that offseason surgery. In fact, let's take a follow-up look at his plate discipline profile to see how LASIK may have helped him.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2010 37.2% 75.2% 54.8% 60.7% 86.8% 77.3% 46.2% 63.4% 12.5%
2011 32.5% 68.5% 49.3% 65.3% 87.7% 79.8% 46.5% 60.9% 9.8%
2012 33.9% 65.3% 48.9% 64.1% 87.6% 79.1% 47.8% 61.5% 10.0%
2013 36.7% 75.1% 53.9% 70.5% 87.3% 81.0% 44.7% 62.1% 10.2%
2014 38.4% 81.6% 57.7% 66.8% 87.1% 79.6% 44.6% 69.8% 11.7%
2015 36.4% 74.4% 53.8% 60.6% 87.3% 77.5% 45.8% 65.9% 12.1%
2016 30.7% 73.1% 51.6% 69.8% 89.8% 83.8% 49.3% 59.8% 8.3%
Total 35.3% 73.7% 53.0% 65.2% 87.6% 79.6% 46.1% 64.0% 10.7%

There are three main categories that jump out here:

  1. Check out that O-Swing%! Ramos has never had a chase rate of lower than 32.5%. His career average is 35.3%. This season? He's chasing just 30.7% of pitches outside of the strike zone. Is this something that could be explained by a surgery which helped his eyesight? Of course!
  2. Ramos' Zone Contact is 2.1% higher than it's ever been in a single season. For a player who so consistently hovered around the 87.5% rate, a 2.1% jump is bordering on absurd.
  3. His 8.3% swinging strike rate is 1.5% better than his career low in the category. It's also 2.4% below his career average.

Ramos is laying off of more bad pitches. He's making more consistent contact on pitches within the strike zone. This is leading to more walks, fewer strikeouts, and more solid contact when he does put the ball in play.

I don't think that LASIK is responsible for all of the improvement that Ramos has shown this season, but it's definitely given him a huge boost.

1300 words and I haven't even gotten to contracts........

In the title, I used the term reasonable. Before I go into some comps to discuss what a reasonable deal for Ramos might look like, I'll emphasize that players, agents, and teams often have a tendency to be unreasonable when it comes to free agency. It's hard to fault any of them for wanting to sign the best deal possible, but we're going to try to be realistic about what Ramos might be worth if the Nats were to pursue signing him to an extension.

In order to do that, we're going to try and find some catchers who Ramos could try to compare himself to and what they've gotten on the open market in recent years. This may not be an easy exercise. I could compare him to Buster Posey (9/$164M) if you'd like, but it won't be particularly useful. Even if Ramos has been better for two months in 2016, Posey is so much more accomplished that comparing the two is ludicrous. The same can be said for Joe Mauer (who has since moved to first base) and Victor Martinez, who were far more established hitters than Ramos when they signed their first free agent contracts/extensions. Even the player that I think is the best fit for a comparable contract to what Ramos should expect was a far more established hitter when he hit free agency than Ramos is now. Let's just start with that guy......

Miguel Montero: Five years, $60 million

Montero hit free agency after the 2012 season, a campaign which saw him bat .286/.391/.438 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. 2012 was his career best season in terms of wRC+ (125), though he'd been a terrific offensive catcher in three of the previous four seasons. Even in that down year (2010), Montero was still a league average hitter (100 wRC+). Montero accounted for 4.5 fWAR in 2012, 3.9 fWAR in 2011, and 2.7 fWAR in 2009 (missed time in 2010, accounting for 1.1 in 85 games). Wilson Ramos has 2.0 fWAR so far in 2016, but he has never finished a single season with more than 2.6 (2011). Montero hit the market as a 29-year-old, which is exactly how old Ramos will be in August.

It's worth noting that the Montero deal hasn't worked out particularly well for his club(s). After batting .284/.372/.454 in the two years leading up to his free agency, Montero has hit just .238/.330/.370 in the first three-plus years of his contract. Arizona traded him to the Cubs two years into the deal. He was fine as a primary starter for the Cubs last season, but he hasn't pieced together any offensive seasons that are on par with his 2009, 2011, or 2012 campaigns in the first three plus years of his deal.

Brian McCann: Five years, $85 million

OK... We're dealing with a much more accomplished hitter here. McCann did sign a six year deal in 2007 with the Braves that bought out his first two free agent years. When he hit free agency (prior to his age 30 season), McCann had notched six consecutive 20 HR seasons and had five seasons when he finished with at least 3.8 fWAR. He was a seven time All Star and five time Silver Slugger. No.... Wilson Ramos is not going to command the $85 million that McCann did on the open market.

Still, Ramos is piecing together a vintage McCann type season so far in 2016. Like I said, players and agents have a tendency to be a tad unreasonable when it comes to free agency. Recent performance can be one of the factors that they play up. The Buffalo is well on his way to a twenty homer season. Even some expected regression the rest of the way probably keeps his ISO (currently .218) in the .200 range (McCann has a .194 career ISO). The same can be said for Ramos' triple slash line. If Ramos triple slashes at his career averages (.265/.309/.425) in 300 plate appearances the rest of the way, he'll end up with a .303/.349/.492 line. That's elite offensive production from a catcher (heck... any position outside of first base or a corner outfield spot)... even if it's just one of his six full big league seasons.

Russell Martin: Five years, $82 million

In a sense, Martin is the guy that scares the crap out of me on this list. When Martin first came up with the Dodgers, he was one of the best two-way catchers in the league. From 2006-2008, Martin triple slashed .285/.373/.433, good for a 113 wRC+. He was also one of the better defensive catchers in the league and even (gasp) ran quite often, stealing 49 bases in 69 attempts in those first three seasons. He actually had two pretty solid follow-up seasons (.352 OBP in 2009, .347 in 2010), but the Dodgers allowed him to leave as a free agent rather than go through the arbitration process prior to the 2011 season.

Martin ended up signing a pretty reasonable free agent deal with the Yankees. He signed a one year, $4 million deal in 2011, then re-signed for $7.5 million to avoid arbitration before 2012. He was pretty much a league average hitter in his two years with New York, slashing .242/.334/.374, good for a 95 wRC+. Martin went on to sign another pretty reasonable deal with Pittsburgh (two years, $15 million) after his two year run with the Yankees.

His first season with the Pirates saw him praised constantly for his defense (career best 22.7 RAA), though his bat was stuck in neutral for the fifth straight season. Martin was a hair above average (102 wRC+) that season, and his .226/.327/.377 line was nothing to write home about. 2014 was a completely different story. Martin suddenly turned in a career year, batting .290/.402/.430 (141 wRC+!) and parlayed that into a massive five year, $82 million deal with the Blue Jays. Since signing that deal with Toronto, Martin has turned back into the guy we saw from 2009-2013, triple slashing .231/.320/.414. He's a league average hitter again.... a very highly paid one.

Carlos Ruiz: Three years, $26 million

Ruiz signed his current three year, $26 million deal with the Phillies prior to the 2014 season. He wasn't exactly coming off of a monster year in 2013 (.268/.320/.368), though he did have his career year just one season earlier in 2012 (.325/.394/.540... an incredible 152 wRC+). However, this is a difficult contract to compare to what Ramos could be looking for in part due to Ruiz's age. Ramos will be eligible for free agency this offseason at the age of 29. Ruiz didn't reach the majors until his age 27 season, and was 34 by the time he hit free agency. It's reasonable to assume that Ruiz would have gotten more in terms of both years and average annual value if he were four or five years younger. In fact, the Phillies do have an option for 2017 on Ruiz that assumes quite a bit of age related decline ($4.5 million).

Ramon Hernandez: Four years, $27.5 million

Hernandez got there a different way than Ramos has, but his slash line (both career-wise and prior to his first foray into free agency) was pretty similar to what Ramos has done so far in his career. From 1999-2005, Hernandez slashed .262/.325/.418. Ramos career line so far is .265/.309/.425.

Of course, we do have to account for eleven years of inflation and the fact that offense is down around the league.

Hernandez hit free agency before his age thirty season, which would be one year older than Ramos. However, he also hit free agency coming off of three years where he'd averaged 2.9 fWAR... something which Ramos has never done in a single season.

Other contemporaries:

  • I suppose we could bring up Matt Wieters, who took the qualifying offer from the Orioles last season. Much like Ramos, he's a guy who never really seemed to take that huge leap forward that everybody projected, though he certainly turned in a couple of seasons that were stronger than anything Ramos has done to this point in 2011 and 2012.
  • Jonathan Lucroy is a player who I would expect to make a bit more than Ramos on the open market, but he signed a five-year extension in 2012 that allowed Milwaukee to buy his first free agent year at $5.25 million. He won't hit free agency until after the 2017 season.
  • We could bring Yadier Molina's five year, $75 million extension from 2013 into the mix, but it feels like an awful lot of that contract is due to Molina's defense behind the plate. As a hitter, Molina brings a higher average and OBP to the table, though he doesn't possess nearly the power that Ramos does. Ramos is a solid (perhaps a tad underrated) defender, but it feels like he's going to get paid for his bat more than his glove.
  • Salvador Perez would be another Venezuelan catcher with a fairly similar skill-set to Ramos. His contract (and how it came to be) is kind of tricky, though. The Royals had signed him to an eight year deal when he was a rookie in 2012. This past offseason, they reworked the contract so that it will be a five year, $52.5 million deal that will keep him in Kansas City through 2021. That nixed three option years (would have been $16.5 million total through 2019). Perez is probably getting paid about what he'd be worth on the open market for the final couple of years of the deal ($14.2 million in 2020 and 2021).

What is Ramos really worth on the open market? Is he worth making a qualifying offer to?

Honestly, I went into the comps thinking that Miguel Montero's deal was the most realistic deal that the two parties could reach. Prior to hitting free agency, Montero's full body of work was certainly stronger than Ramos' is. Ramos' strong performance in his walk year and a reasonable explanation for why he's been so much better (LASIK) indicates that this could be more of a breakout than an anomalous one-year spike. If the Nats believe this improved performance is for real (well.. mostly for real), they should be able to justify giving him a long-term deal with an average annual value of $10-$12 million. If the Nats are unwilling to go that route, it seems to be a safe bet that some team will believe that his gains in 2016 are for real and give him that much on the open market.

While that last statement indicates that it may be difficult for the Nats to retain Wilson Ramos' services this offseason, it does seem like it should be a safe bet for them to tender him the qualifying offer. While the qualifying offer figures to be more than $16 million this offseason, most players that feel confident they'll get three (plus) years and $11 (plus) million in average annual value are going to reject that. Ideally, the club can keep Ramos in a Nats uniform on a deal that's reasonable for both parties. If they can't, they should at least be able to net a draft pick when he walks.

Since I've come all this way, let's put an actual number on it. I'll say that Ramos will test free agency. Although the Nats may be the team that he eventually signs with, I don't see Ramos and his agent foregoing the opportunity to hit the open market when he's this close and having what will likely be a career year. Assuming that he doesn't fall off a cliff in the second half, I'll guesstimate that Ramos signs for five years and $65 million this offseason. That's going to be awfully risky for a player coming off of a career year.