Catch a Nationals’ Catcher

While recently running some projections for the catcher position, I paused at the name Ivan Rodriguez. First, I couldn’t believe he was still in the league. He’s turning 39 next week, he’s survived allegation and decline, and yet he’s employed as a major-league catcher next year and he’s averaged 433 plate appearances over his last three years. His offense hasn’t been great (around a 72 wRC+ the last two years), but it’s a tough position, and his .266 batting average last year was 13th among catchers with more than 300 plate appearances. He’s been owned and will be owned again.

But it wasn’t just Rodriguez that gave me pause. After just returning from the Arizona Fall League, where young Derek Norris played well (.278/.403/.667 in 65 plate appearances), I wondered how soon the Nationals would make a change and look to the future. In that future, it’s Norris that piques the interest. He’s put up a 267/304 BB/K ratio in 1392 plate appearances, or a 19.2% walk rate and a 28% strikeout rate. The first is nice, the second is very worrisome. In the AFL he struck out 33% of the time, so that part of his game has continued.

In this case, the good news is that Norris hasn’t played in Double-A yet and has a full year to work on his strikeout rate. He has patience and power – a .201 ISO so far, and a nice showing at the AFL with four homers, two triples and five at-bats in those 54 PAs – so two thirds of the triumvirate are there. His range of possibilities still includes Geovany Soto (16% walk rate, 25.8% strikeout rate, .217 ISO last year), but it also includes Chris Snyder (13.8% walk rate, 29.5% strikeout rate, .169 ISO last year). The risk of the latter is large, but the promise of the former means that Norris needs to stay on radars as he progresses through Double-A in 2011.

In the short term, Rodriguez may have more to worry about from Jesus Flores. Flores has been battling shoulder woes which took all of 2010 from him – but he’s been catching in the Venezuelan Winter League until a calf injury recently sidelined him. Taken in the Rule V draft from the Mets, Flores has been injured so often that he’s only managed 627 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2007 season. In those plate appearances, he hasn’t shown much patience (6.4%), power (.146 ISO) or ability to make contact (26.5%), but short stints have produced small samples in which he’s walked at double-digit rates and shown above-average power. Flores gets an incomplete but interesting, which seems about par for the course.

Last but not least is the newcomer, Wilson Ramos. Famously blocked in Minnesota, Ramos came over in the Matt Capps trade and found some previously lacking mojo. In 2008 and 2009, Ramos was a young catcher in High-A and Double-A showing the ability to avoid the strikeout (18.6% over the two years, 11.2% in Double-A) and pair that with average power (.146 and .137 ISOs respectively). Then 2010 came, and he lost the power (.104 ISO), hit some poor batted-ball luck (.277 BABIP), and put forth a .241/.280/.345 line that may have contributed to his trade. The change of scenery did the trick, as he put up a .177 ISO with the Nationals, and the batted ball luck returned to normal (.344 BABIP), considering that BABIPs are normally high in the minor leagues.

Through it all, Ramos has shown the ability to avoid the strikeout (17.7% career, and lower at the higher levels). That might serve him to put up an okay batting average despite the lack of walks. Paired with average-ish power, he might look like… Ivan Rodriguez. Without some – cough – help, Ramos’ power peak won’t ever look like Rodriguez’ best years, but look at the Tigers’ version of Rodriguez for an idea of what a nice Ramos year could look like. And, in fact, that makes him the safest bet for the future at the position for the Nationals.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


11 Responses to “Catch a Nationals’ Catcher”

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  1. The A Team says:

    I was trying to project playing time at the position yesterday. I concluded that it will need to be solved at a later update.

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  2. Ray says:

    The prospects experts at ESPN think Ramos is a stopgap till Norris is ready…..fwiw.

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  3. JoeP says:

    Before you so easily denigrate a future hall-of-famer, walk a mile (or a foot) in his cleats let alone 10 years in the sweltering Texas heat. He has forgotten more about baseball than most of the young catchers you are trying to gift with a starting gig as catcher have even learned yet. I am sure Pudge isn’t losing any sleep over bloggers anxiously trying to put him out to pasture, but I for one am enjoying watching a master at work teaching young pitchers the ropes.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      You can enjoy his defensive work, and his long career, but this is fantasy baseball and those things – that are admittedly real – have very little to do with what I wrote about here. I mean no disrespect to him as a human being, but I also feel that sort of caveat is always there when I do my inconsequential blogging.

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    • Jake says:

      On a side note, this whole “he’s forgotten more [x] than so-and-so will ever learn” is an extremely stupid saying. The issue is how much baseball Pudge “knows” now, not how much he used to. All you’re really saying is that Pudge is a whole lot worse than he used to be.

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  4. another know it all says:

    Norris’s strikeout rate isn’t a problem at all, and I’m very surprised you think it is. In a vacuum, a 28% strikeout rate looks like a guy who just swings at everything. But in reality, the opposite is true… Norris lacks aggression at the plate. Saying that “Norris’s strikeout rate really has to come down….” is shortsighted and just plain wrong. The difference between Soto and Snyder has nothing to do with plate discipline…. it’s their swing. Snyder’s low LD rate and high IFFB rate tells me THATS the difference between Soto and Snyder, not plate discipline.

    Norris’ success will come down to swing mechanics and his ability to become more aggressive at the plate while MAINTAINING his good batting eye.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      To me, writing about baseball is an exploration. I enjoy it because the unexpected happens, and the game proves even the best ‘experts’ wrong all the time. Norris’ strikeout rate could not be a problem.

      However, strikeout rates tend to increase when you make the jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues. And here is the list of major league catchers that managed 300 plate appearances and had a strikeout rate of 28% or worse: Chris Snyder, Miguel Olivo, Mike Napoli.

      Since this is a fantasy column, that’s worth pointing out. High strikeout rates are correlated with poor batting averages, which would make Norris a poor fantasy catcher. In real life, the team may be fine with a cost-controlled young catcher with the ability to take a walk and show some pop – a slightly more powerful Chris Snyder, for example – but fantasy managers might want a little more. So I think it’s still worth watching his strikeout rate.

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  5. jason says:

    “In real life, the team may be fine with a cost-controlled young catcher with the ability to take a walk and show some pop” Tell that to the Rockies.

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  6. camisadelgolf says:

    Your mother should stick soap in your mouth for mentioning Wilson Ramos and Ivan Rodriguez in the same sentence.

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