Why the Nats Didn’t Re-Sign Pudge

I got into a pretty lively discussion on Twitter today about the Nats catcher situation, sparked off by This tweet:

The #nats are horribly thin at catcher. They don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping. They need to bring Pudge back.

Let me refute the proposition that [the Nats] need to bring Pudge back by refuting, in turn, each of the statements upon which it was premised.

The Nats are horribly thin at catcher

There are a few assumptions embedded in this statement. Mostly, the objection boils down to this: Jesús Flores is not a good hitter.

This is an opinion. I’ll answer with facts. In his 2011 Venezuelan League regular season, Flores batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs. He posted a wRC of 27. Yeah, I can hear you saying, that’s Venezuela, a Double-A league at best. He did’t hit so good as a big-leaguer!. OK, that’s true. In 2008, his last long, uninjured season, Flores batted .256/.296./402 with 8 home runs. Not impressive–he was only worth 32 wRC to the ’08 Nats. That’s a wRC+ of 79, which is below average.

I concede that there’s a very big drop-off from Flores’s best wRC+ of 79 to Wilson Ramos’s worst wRC+ or 91 (in 2010). But, as we’ll see later, Flores stacks up very nicely against the competition–especially when that competition is Pudge Rodriguez.

[The Nats] don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping

This is a true statement in the very strict sense. We’ll never really know, because Ramos himself won’t talk much about it. The only thing we have to judge him on is his Venezuelan league performance. As I said on Sunday, the Venezuelan League numbers aren’t as bad as they might seem. Sure, Ramos batted a comparatively lousy .216/.274/.273 with 2 doubles and only 1 home run, accounting for only 11 wRC. But Ramos only got 98 plate appearances (his regular season having been disrupted by the kidnapping, naturally). When we normalize his offensive numbers to the 200 plate appearances he would have otherwise gotten (and which he did get in 2010), he would have gotten 23 wRC. Yes, exactly the same wRC as he got in 2010, a Venezuelan season in which he hit .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs.

And we cannot help but be encouraged by his performance in the Championship Series, in which he helped the Tigres de Aragua to victory batting .450/.550/.478 with 2 home runs over 20 at-bats in 6 games.

For all intents and purposes, the Wilson Ramos that walked out of the jungle a free man seems to have been the same Wilson Ramos that was taken into the jungle at gunpoint. We should expect the same from him.

The Nats Need to Sign Pudge

No they don’t.

OK, you’re saying, but what’s the harm in signing Pudge? He’s a future hall-of-famer, calls a great game, and is generally awesome. Why not have Pudge back up for Ramos instead of Flores? Well, I hate to say it, but Pudge is too old, bats too poorly, and costs too much to put him on the team instead of Flores.

Remember when I said Flores’s wRC+ of 79 in his best year made him a below-average hitter? Have a look at Pudge’s wRC+ since 2009. It’s not pretty: 69, 68, 63. In the 2010 season, the last season Pudge was the every-day catcher, Pudge hit into 25 double plays (leading a friend of mine to dub him, not so fondly, GiDPudge). There’s no denying it–Pudge has entered the autumn of the patriarch. Rest assured that having Pudge as a back-up catcher instead of Flores will mean less offense on a ballclub that desperately needs offense.

Fine, but Pudge is the best defensive catcher in the game! Yes he is. But using the same wRC projection method I use for making my 2012 season projections, Pudge is worth 24 wRC. Flores is worth 31. Is Pudge’s defense good enough to save 7 additional runs? Maybe not.

Even if Pudge’s defense could make up for his declining offense, there’s the question of money. In 2011, Pudge earned a cool $3,000,000 from the Nats. Even if he decided to take a significant discount and play for half that–$1,500,000, Pudge would cost nearly twice as much as the $815,000 the Nats are paying Flores for 2012.

If you think Flores’s future looks more like his 2011 Venezuelan League numbers, why would you pay twice as much for a catcher who will net you less offense? And even if Pudge’s defensive skills equal the difference between his offensive numbers and Flores’s, why would you pay twice as much to achieve the same net result?

It’s not that Pudge has not been an excellent catcher. But the Nats have two catchers who are perfectly adequate for their purposes right now–especially at their salary levels. If I were GM, I would worry less about catchers and more about the outfield.

Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

Of course, many of their teammates have already been in Viera for quite some time, getting extra work in before the official start to spring training.

Notably, however, a few Nats have been doing a lot more with their winter vacations than that. Henry Rodriguez, along with his fellow Venezuelans Jesús Flores and Wilson Ramos, spent the winter playing in the Venezuelan League. However many off-season workouts you can do, I imagine it’s very different to be able to work on your skills in a situation where real games are on the line, in front of stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans.

While beat writers will be busy asking other ballplayers what they did on their winter vacation–and while those other ballplayers will reply with endless variations on “I worked really hard; I’m in the best shape of my life now,” the Nationals’ three Venezuelan ballplayers can get on with their business and let their records speak for themselves. Well, what do those records say?

First, a note about the Venezuelan League season. There is a 63-game regular season, followed by a 16-game round-robin “semifinal” that determines the two teams that face each other in the final championship series. I’m only looking at regular-season statistics here. After all, that’s all I look at when I look at a player’s MLB statistics. The Round-robin and championship series phases are “post-season,” and so won’t be counted. Besides,as I said yesterday, I’m lazy. Getting proper offensive statistics would require more data entry than I have time or inclination to do.

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

A few days ago, I tweeted that Henry Rodriguez was going to be someone I’ll be watching carefully over the course of the 2012 season. In his time with the Nats so far, he has shown himself capable of unbelievable feats of relief pitching dominance. But to say he had some issues getting his considerable power under control might be something of an understatement:

According to SB Nation, the 10th-worst Pitch of 2011. I still cringe just thinking about this.

The Hot Rod’s 2011 season with the Nationals split the difference between those two extremes. In 59 appearances and 65.2 innings pitched, the Hot Rod recorded an ERA of 3.56, a FIP of 3.24, and a WHIP of 1.51. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.59 batters, and walk 6.17 of them–and give up a measly 0.14 home runs.

How did he do in Venezuela this winter? In 23 appearances and 23.2 innings pitched, he recorded an ERA of 3.80, a FIP of 3.88, and a WHIP of 1.39. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.39 batters, walk 6.46, and give up 0.38 home runs.

The one thing that kills Rodriguez is his walks. His walk rate crept up during the 2011 Venezuelan league regular season, and that’s not something Nats fans wanted to see. The 1.39 WHIP is lower than his 2011 MLB WHIP of 1.51, despite an increase in walk rate and decrease in strikeout rate, so it looks like Venezuelan-league batters had a harder time reaching base safely after making contact. I can’t verify this without better information, but I’m betting the sheer speed of his pitches leaves hitters making weak, late contact–they must not have been catching up to the fastball. Of course, when they do time him, they can do serious damage. Witness the increase in home run rates (although I wonder if that’s just bad luck, rather than bad pitching).

In many ways, the 2011 Venezuelan regular season has been a disappointment for Hot Rod, because in the 2010 Venezuelan league regular season, he put up dominant numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. In 21.1 IP over 18 appearances, Hot Rod posted absolutely Strasburg-like stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 0.94 WHIP. Strikeouts per 9 innings? 14.00. And, most importantly of all: 3.80 walks per 9 innings. Oh, and zero home runs.

When Henry Rodriguez is locked-in, as he was in Venezuela in 2010, he’s one of the most fearsome relievers in the game, capable of totally destroying opposing batting. But when he’s not locked-in, he puts up performances that are, well, not nearly so dominant. We saw that in DC all last summer, and fans in Venezuela saw it this winter. It will be interesting to see whether Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty can work with Henry to get his fearsome power under control. If the 2010 Venezuelan League model of the Hot Rod rolls out of the bullpen for the 2012 Nats, the National League is in for a nasty surprise. But if the 2011 Hot Rod coughs and sputters to life, fans seated behind home plate should, for their safety, carefully inspect the netting, and maybe consider buying a half-smoke while Henry goes to work.

Ramos y Flores

Let’s move on to the Nats’ two botanically-surnamed catchers. In Venezuela this winter, one of them batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs, posting a wRC of 27. The other batted .216/.274/.273, with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a wRC of 11. Which is which?

If you guessed that the flourishing catcher was Jesús Flores, you are right. Flores didn’t see much action with the Nats in 2011, and we had pretty much forgotten about him in DC after he was hurt in 2009. The last good look we’d gotten at Flores was in 2008, when he batted .256/.296/.402 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 8 home runs. If his Venezuelan league offensive figures are any indication of his readiness for the 2012 MLB season, I think the Nats can expect very good things from Flores. If Flores bats in 2012 the way that he did in Venezuela, we can project him to have a wRC of 34 in 2012–4 more runs than we would have expected from his recent past.

Ramos’s Venezuelan season got off to the worst possible start–he was kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men, and the freed in what was supposed to have been a fierce gunfight. Only he can know how he was affected, but his offensive production, at first glance, looks to have dropped off considerably. If Ramos bats as well in 2012 for the Nats as he did in Venezuela, I’d project him to post a wRC of 46–3 runs fewer than I have him projected this year.

But look again. During the 2010 Venezuelan season, he batted .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs, posting a wRC of 23. But, crucially, Ramos got 200 plate appearances in 2010, as opposed to only 95 in 2011. If we give him 200 plate appearances in 2011, he ends up with a wRC of… yup, 23!

How can that be? My guess: one of the components of wRC is the league average wOBA. In 2010, when Ramos put up the gaudy Venezuelan numbers, The league average wOBA was .283. In 2011, that average dropped to .275. Perhaps Ramos’s numbers (and scaled numbers) are down because the whole league’s numbers are down. Perhaps Venezuelan league pitching improved as a whole. Either way, Nats fans can be comforted by the fact that, even after everything that’s happened to him, Wilson Ramos is the same ballplayer he’s always been.

What Nats fans should look forward to this spring, however, is an emerging Catcher Controversy. Flores did very well with the Navegantes de Magallanes–look at those offensive stats! If Flores can continue to build on his Venezuelan League successes while in the Grapefruit League this spring, we might find that it is Flores, not Ramos, who ends up as the Nats’ opening-day catcher.

Wilson Ramos on Winning the Venezuelan Series

Because Nats Enquirer somehow won’t let me comment on this item, here’s a rough transcription/translation of Wilson Ramos’s feelings on winning the Venezuelan Series with the Tigres de Aragua:

REPORTER: “I’m here with Wilson Ramos. Wilson, congratulations–amid all the confetti and the celebrations, a new season and a new title for the Tigres de Aragua.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Yeah, look–I’m very pleased with all this–with all what we’ve done. We fought a lot for this, in spite of the adversity that we’ve had, all the bad things that happened, as much to me as for everyone else, but we never hung our heads, and we gave our all all the time.”

REPORTER: “It must have been hard, but [garbled] nevertheless, you’re lifting up a new trophy.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Yeah, look–it’s something that can’t be compared to anything else. We’ve all suffered a lot. Look, each one of us carried his little grain of sand…the team really came out from underneath it all and we achieved what we desired.”

REPORTER: “Congratulations, Wilson.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Thanks”