The Tigers needed to make smart moves this offseason if they hoped to bolster their lineup while also keeping spending low. There were not many free agent catcher options available to them, yet they still surprised observers with their unexpected selection of Wilson Ramos.
The one-year, $2 million deal for the 33-year-old Venezuelan catcher seems to tick a lot of boxes for the Tigers. He’s a veteran catching presence to platoon with their young catchers and to guide their young pitchers. He’s also an above-average hitter for someone in the catcher slot, with a career .274/.321/.434, and two All-Star appearances under his belt. His wRC+ is predicted to be right around average for 2021, meaning he’d be a welcome addition to the lineup.
We thought that perhaps the best people to tell us how Ramos plays would be writers for the last two teams he spent full seasons with: the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Mets, to get a sense of who the Tigers new catcher is, and what he can do for the team.
Ian Malinowski of DRaysBay and Allison McCague of Amazin’ Avenue were kind enough to give us some really tremendous insight on the player lovingly known as “The Buffalo.”
BYB: The Tigers have a lot of young pitching prospects they’ll be putting to the test this year. How do you think Ramos will do paired with younger pitchers new to the MLB level?
IM: On the one hand, I don’t think that anyone’s ever called Wilson Ramos a great defensive catcher or great game caller. But he’s an eleven year MLB veteran! And he seems like a personable guy that his teammates love. You don’t go through the career he’s had without learning to understand pitching, and I think he’ll be capable of and happy to put the young Tigers pitchers under his [very large] wing and help them break into the league.
AM: I think mentoring young pitchers will potentially be one of Ramos’ strengths. He is a veteran catcher and has been well-regarded in every clubhouse he’s been a part of. Other than relievers and guys making spot starts, the only rookie Ramos caught during his tenure with the Mets was David Peterson last season and Peterson performed remarkably well in his rookie year.
There was one spat between Ramos and Noah Syndergaard during the Mets’ ultimately failed playoff push in 2019, but that mostly stemmed from Syndergaard’s frustration with Ramos’ defensive shortcomings. He wanted Tomas Nido to be his personal catcher, but the Mets desperately needed Ramos’ right-handed bat in the lineup at the time. But Ramos handled the situation very professionally and it’s doubtful that a situation like that will emerge in Detroit. I think he’ll be a great guiding hand for young starters. By all accounts, he seems like an excellent teammate.
BYB: How to you see him being most useful to a rebuilding team like the Tigers?
IM: The thing that I’d try not to lose site of is that even fans of rebuilding teams need something to look forward to. The whole win curve model is based on translating each marginal win into marginal revenue, and the point isn’t just that teams should invest more when they have a chance at making the playoffs, but that each win actually does have some value no matter where the team is. I won’t pretend to know what the Tigers marginal revenue curve looks like, but the Ramos signing could go one of two ways. He could be an amiable veteran who ends up a footnote that only the most hard core historians give developmental credit ten years from now, or he could explode back on offense and put on a show that serves as the highlight of the 2021 season.
Ramos’s bat is weird. He’s super strong, but also super slow (like, literally one of the top 5 slowest players in MLB), and he hits the ball on the ground too much. In seasons where he’s able to lift the ball just a little bit more than his norm, good things happen. I think Tigers fans should think of him as a player for The Now, and hope he lifts the ball.
AM: I think for a rebuilding team, having a few guys where you know exactly what you’re getting is a good thing. You have that in Wilson Ramos. Through almost his entire career, he has provided above average offensive production from the catching position—arguably only J.T. Realmuto and James McCann have been better with the bat over the past few seasons. His Mets career with the bat was a bit of a tale of two seasons. In 2019 he was one of the more consistent hitters on the team, especially during their stretch run in August, when he put together the third longest hitting streak in franchise history. But his 15-20ish home run power was decidedly missing. He hit the ball on the ground so much, which is not great for a guy who is probably the slowest man in baseball. He upped his launch angle in 2020 and the power returned, but to the detriment of his contact rate and his strikeouts rose considerably and his batting average dropped. But despite that, he was still an above average offensive catcher in 2020. And the biggest fear going into his Mets tenure—injury—did not come to pass. He was pretty healthy during his time with the Mets.
BYB: Is he more of an at-the-plate get, or is he actually a decent defensive catcher?
IM: Yeah, so this is really the question. I last watched Ramos regularly in 2018, and he’s had two more hard years on that very large body since then, so take everything with a grain of salt. Ramos is very strong (you don’t get the nickname “Buffalo” with noodle arms), and he can throw to second competently regardless of body positioning because of it. He is committed to blocking, but he’s no better than average at it. I think he’s decent at framing the high strike, but, like many other large catchers, he struggles with framing at the lower edges of the zone.
Basically, the overall upside in his bat is limited because of a defensive ceiling. Back in 2018 I wrote on whether that 2018 season was the best by a Rays catcher ever, and spoiler alert, offensively maybe, overall no. It’s also possible that his body could give out and both his bat and his glove could collapse and he’d be among the worst regular starters in MLB. For both your sake and his (I like the guy!), I hope that doesn’t happen.
AM: At the time the Mets signed Ramos, I took a deep dive into his defensive stats and his framing metrics and at the time he seemed to be a slightly below-average pitch framer, with good pitch blocking and throwing skills and poor base-running. But he turned out to be a pretty poor defensive catcher with the Mets—worse than I expected.
His bad knees mean he has terrible lateral movement and he is particularly poor at stealing strikes low in the zone. It really is one of those instances where I feel the metrics don’t fully capture the whole story. Frankly, his defense does not pass the eye test. There were 1-2 instances a game where he would simply drop strikes and sometimes those would get called balls, which is frustrating to watch, especially when the likes of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard are pitching. It got bad enough that Syndergaard wanted to throw to the backup catcher Nido instead, as I alluded to earlier.
So I’m not going to sugarcoat anything here; he’s not a good defensive catcher. He did come to the Mets with the reputation of having an above average throwing arm, however. And my recollection is that he was more or less average in that department, but that is complicated by the fact that almost all the Mets’ pitchers are slow to the plate and struggle to keep runners on, so the Mets are always going to be victim to the stolen base, no matter who is behind the plate.
BYB: What was your favorite part of having him on your team?
IM: We Rays fans have been in the catcher wilderness for a really long time. Stephen Vogt, John Jaso, Robinson Chirinos, and even Curt Casali and Luke Maile all put up good catcher seasons, but for most of them that happened after they left Tampa Bay (which hurts). Our best-ever catcher is probably Jose Molina, and his ungodly framing ability at the front end of the framing revolution. But when the Rays signed Wilson Ramos to a two-year deal that included his ACL rehab season, it was a breath of name brand hope at rehab prices — the type of player the Rays could not afford given full health — and that was exciting.
And then he delivered on that second year promise with a .297/.346/.488 season before being traded to Philly (this trade hurt) and going off even more.
Still, the lasting image I have is one of those all-arm throws. It’s not an image of clinical technique (that’s Jose Molina), or even necessarily actually even a great throw (that’s either John Flaherty or Toby Hall), but there’s something special about watching a big man nailing a runner at second from his knees that sticks with me. It wasn’t just that Wilson Ramos was a good baseball player, it’s that he felt like a good baseball player.
Time comes for us all. I hope y’all get some of that feeling.
AM: It sounds cheesy, but my favorite part of having Ramos on the Mets was getting to root for a person who seemed like a genuinely good human being. During his Mets tenure he opened up about his 2011 kidnapping in Venezuela and he’s always just struck me as remarkably earnest and thoughtful.
This quote he gave during the 2020 season amidst the pandemic sticks with me still: “It’s hard to go back to the hotel after a bad game and just think in the bedroom. It’s different when you have your family with you and you come back after a bad day and you see your kids and you forget about that day. You just turn the page. But right now, I’m overthinking every night because I don’t have anything to do.”
Every time he had a big hit and the dugout all threw up the buffalo horns, Amazin’ Avenue would all be posting our Buffalo emojis. He was a joy to root for.
Many thanks to Ian and Allison for providing such thoughtful insight on Ramos, who sounds to be a really delightful character and great clubhouse guy. We’re looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table for Detroit in 2021.
You can read more of Ian’s work at DRaysBay, and more of Allison’s work at Amazin’ Avenue.