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Wilson Ramos’ Home Run Surge

He didn’t accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify for the end of season rankings, but Wilson Ramos still finished 16th in overall fantasy value according to CBS, despite just 287 at-bats. Because of time spent on the disabled list once again, it’s easy to miss the fact that he hit 16 home runs with a 27.6% HR/FB rate. That mark would have ranked second in baseball behind Chris Davis if he had qualified and easily led all catchers.

Ramos’ biggest problem has been staying on the field. In 2012, he missed the majority of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, which limited him to fewer than 100 plate appearances. This year, it was his left hamstring that was troublesome. He missed two weeks with a strain in April, then reinjured it in May and spent nearly seven more weeks on the disabled list. Those injuries have held his counting stats down and may have caused fantasy owners to forget how productive he has been when actually healthy.

In his only other full season back in 2011, Ramos posted a .177 ISO and swatted 15 home runs in 389 at-bats. That’s pretty solid for a catcher and came along with a reasonable 13.4% HR/FB rate. This year, his ISO increased to .199, but the real jump came in his HR/FB rate. That mark, referenced in the intro, more than doubled, which was more than a little surprising coming from a guy who was never a big power hitter in the minors.

Back in 2011, Ramos’ average home run and fly ball distance was 286 feet. That mark was above the league average and matches up well with his HR/FB rate for the year. Given his history, one might figure that this year his distance didn’t move much, suggesting his HR/FB rate was a fluke. That wasn’t the case, however. Amazingly, his batted ball distance shot up to nearly 310 feet, which ranked seventh in all of baseball!

So based on his distance alone, we might conclude that his HR/FB rate explosion was no fluke after all. Well, surely some regression might be expected, perhaps to the low 20% range, but no player averaging 310 feet should ever post low-teen HR/FB rates. The question that must be posed now is whether the distance itself is sustainable.

That is impossible to answer, of course, because without any sort of explanation as to what was behind the home run surge, we’re just speculating. When Chad Young and I first looked at the relationship between batted ball distance and HR/FB ratio, Chad looked into what happens to distance surgers and decliners in year 3. On average, those hitters who gained at least 15 feet in year 2 lost 10 of those feet in year 3. In other words, half of the jump disappeared in the third year. This is regression at work, so this should be no surprise.

The good news is that it suggests that on average, a significant gainer will still hold onto some of those gains and remain above where he began in year one. Ramos gained 24 feet from year 1 to year 2, so if we go with him losing half of his gains, rather than the absolute value of 10 feet, we’re left with a distance projection in 2014 of 298 feet. That’s still a top 25 distance and probably matches up with a high-teen HR/FB rate. Conveniently, that’s just above what his current career mark sits at.

Aside from the power, it’s worth discussing two more changes we observed from Ramos. His strikeout rate improved significantly this year, however that was not supported by a drop in SwStk% or a strong increase in Contact%. I would therefore expect his strikeout rate to increase toward his career mark next season. Second, his fly ball rate plummeted to just about 24%. If he qualified, that would have ranked seventh lowest, and he would have been surrounded by the names of speedy slap hitters with little power. You have to assume his FB% rebounds next year and that could offset some of the drop in HR/FB rate, as well as any increase in strikeout rate.

Next season, you have to assume that Ramos’ HR/FB rate is going to drop. But even so, his injury-riddled history coupled with solid performance when on the field might make him undervalued in drafts next year. If he could maintain a league average line drive rate again, he even has some BABIP and batting average upside. He has real hidden potential to deliver a top five catcher season.