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How much of a defensive upgrade is Wilson Ramos?

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Not so much over Jorge Alfaro, but over Andrew Knapp? It’s significant

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Let’s get this part out of the way: with the Phillies’ acquisition of Wilson Ramos, their catching just got much better on offense. There is no statistic that would agree Jorge Alfaro or Andrew Knapp is better with the bat right now than Ramos, so that is a point that cannot be argued. What can be argued is that Ramos is a clear upgrade over Alfaro and Knapp behind the plate. That was the reaction many had to the trade yesterday.

These tweets seem pretty certain that Ramos is better with the mitt than the two incumbents, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Using some of the advanced stats out there available for evaluating a catcher’s defense, it’s probably more fair to say this is an upgrade over half of the catching duo the Phillies have been using.

Let’s start with this statement. Baseball Prospectus has some of the best advanced catching statistics around. That will be the main source of information here. Using that information, we can see that Jorge Alfaro, by adjusted fielding runs, has been the 7th best defensive catcher in the game so far this year.

That takes into account all of the aspects the website uses to evaluate catchers. It’s probably the most surprising thing about Alfaro this season, how far his defense has come. It was one of the things we were most worried about when it came to Alfaro before the season started. We always knew he had the cannon for the arm, but he has made his biggest gains in pitch framing. In 2017, he was not good at all at that skills, costing his team -2.6 runs when framing pitches. This was in over 1,800 chances, so it’s not subjected too the small sample size. He simply wasn’t good at it. Now, if we look at how he has done this year, he’s one of the best in the game at presenting pitches to the umpire.

Just in framing alone, Alfaro has been worth almost a win above replacement level. It’s a massive jump for him, one he should be commended for.

In the other part of his game that has received praise, his throwing, he has also shown to be one of the best. I’ve written before about his arm, but the stats also bear that out. He’s ranks third in the game in throwing runs as well.

He’s thrown out 32% of would be basestealers, not among the best, but there was a notable change in his season. Of the first 17 base runners to try and steal, 15 were successful (12% CS rate). Since then, he has nabbed 42% of basestealers, a mark that would put him in the top 5 for catchers. So, as we can see, when it comes to two-thirds of the things we can evaluate catchers on, Alfaro has been elite.

Now, Ramos has been no slouch himself. He has been worth 0.0 framing runs this year, not bad, but not to the level Alfaro has been at. The thing is, Ramos has demonstrated in the past that he can be one of the better framers in the game. Since arriving in the majors in 2010, he has had a negative value in framing runs only once (2014). His high water mark was in 2011, when he was worth 21.1 runs alone. That’s incredible. Even as recently as 2015, he has worth 10.7 framing runs. So, it’s not as if he’s bad at it. He’s been quite good. It’s just that Alfaro has been better. His throwing, while not Alfaro-esque, has been average as well, gunning down 22% of attempted stolen bases. The difference between the two has been in blocking balls in the dirt.

There is no way around this: Alfaro has not blocked balls well at all. He’s one of the worst catchers in BP’s blocking runs category (-2.1 runs), while Ramos has been a hair above average at 0.3 runs. We’ve seen repeatedly how often Alfaro will attempt to backhand a ball rather than get into the proper blocking position. This is probably one of the areas the team was looking at when evaluating the catching position. Alfaro has struggled and Ramos would provide an option to upgrade.

So, at this point, to say Ramos is an upgrade over Alfaro defensively isn’t really accurate at all. Depending on the importance you place on each of these skills (framing, throwing, blocking), I’d probably roll the dice with Alfaro the rest of the season. What you probably notice is that I haven’t included several important things here: errors, wild pitches, passed balls.....and Andrew Knapp.

Let me show you this chart:

Phillies’ catchers in 2018

Player Framing Runs Throwing Runs Blocking Runs FRAA_ADJ Errors PB WP
Player Framing Runs Throwing Runs Blocking Runs FRAA_ADJ Errors PB WP
Alfaro 8.5 0.3 -2.1 7.0 8 8 38
Ramos 0.0 -0.1 0.3 0.5 4 6 23
Knapp -4.3 -0.3 0.0 -4.8 8 5 20

Can you see now why it has been mentioned this was about upgrading the defense? Andrew Knapp hasn’t been good this year behind the backstop. He struggles in just about every way we can evaluate a catcher - throwing, framing and blocking. He’s thrown out only 17% of basestealers, near the bottom of the league. He has been a liability with the glove.

When people spoke about the defensive upgrade, this is probably what they were talking about. Replacing Knapp with Ramos is a huge deal. It will make them better defensively and give the pitching staff a little more confidence when Ramos is back there instead of Knapp. So, when the people were saying it was a defensive upgrade, perhaps they should have been more specific. This is a major upgrade over Knapp. With Ramos and Alfaro handling the catching duties the rest of the way, a weakness has now been significantly strengthened.