Fast baseball players tend to hit ground-balls. And usually, they’re pretty good at it.
In order to procure this analysis, it didn’t take much time; merely common sense led me to this conclusion.
Baseball players who are fleet of foot are likely to beat out ground-balls because his speed gives them a natural advantage.
Which makes it all the more confusing how Wilson Ramos led the Majors in ground-ball percentage in 2019, yet enjoyed another quality offensive campaign.
“The Buffalo” had a nice little first season in Queens.
A .288/.351/.416 slash line with 14 home runs, 73 RBIs, and a 26 game hitting streak to boot.
If I forgo traditional statistics and only rely on analytics, advanced metrics still portrayed his season as above-average: a 105 wRC+, .327 wOBA.
With his productive campaign, Ramos had seemingly solidified the position that sorely lacked a consistent contributor since the heyday of Mike Piazza.
24 straight games with a hit! Wilson Ramos has been incredible lately 🔥
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) September 1, 2019
I’ve had plenty of time to think during quarantine; this was one of the topics that occupied my mind.
How did Wilson Ramos succeed in 2019?
Wilson Ramos led Major League Baseball in 2019 with his 62% ground-ball percentage.
That’s notable for a couple of reasons:
- Players with high ground-ball rates are usually speedy and have the ability to beat out infield hits.
- For players that aren’t fast, a high ground-ball rate is particularly worrisome
You could argue Ramos succeeded with his ground-ball heavy approach because he’s so fast that the Trackman system arbitrarily, and unfairly, rated him as a poor runner.
Maybe he’s Usain Bolt in disguise.
Hey, it’s 2020, crazier stuff has happened this year.
But, unfortunately for Ramos, it’s likelier that Trackman graded him properly, ranking him in the fourth percentile in speed.
For someone who placed fourth-lowest in MLB.com’s Sprint Speed metric, it would make sense to adopt a fly-ball heavy approach, but Ramos did just the opposite.
Ramos’ 2019 batted-profile was riddled with enigmas.
A slow backstop, ranking first in the Majors in ground-ball percentage, yet still being a force with the stick, is virtually unheard of.
His approach portended poorly for his performance, but despite all odds, he still managed to be productive.
With the 2020 season upon us, Ramos is currently penciled in as the Mets’ everyday catcher, and for good reason.
His offensive production was above-average in 2019; he was one of the two Mets backstops since 2008 to run an OPS topping .750.
But his 62% ground-ball rate raises some red flags for his 2020 campaign.
So let’s think of the worst-case scenario.
We’re Mets fans; we’re good at that.
Let’s say, Ramos doesn’t change his approach and continues with his ground-ball heavy ways.
Let’s say, the assumption I mentioned before comes true— that slow players don’t succeed at hitting tons of ground balls — and Ramos struggles with the stick in 2020, which, coupled with his poor pitch-framing marks, makes the catcher position a net negative for New York.
But how likely is that?
Was Ramos simply lucky in 2019 to have a high ground-ball rate and hit for a high OPS?
I wanted to get to the bottom of that question and check if a slow player’s high ground-ball rate factors into his production the following season.
Or are those two variables completely independent of each other?
In order to check my hypothesis, I filtered the results to get an accurate representation of Ramos’ 2019 offensive profile.
I used MLB.com’s Sprint Speed metric to account for the speed component of this exercise.
Sprint Speed measures a player’s speed by calculating how many feet per second he sprints during his fastest one-second window.
One of the major detractors of using Sprint Speed is that their data only goes back to the 2015 season, but as it’s the most comprehensive speed metric out there, I thought it would be appropriate to use.
I used 10 competitive runs as a qualifier.
Filtering out players who finished above the 10th percentile of Sprint Speed during his campaign, I wanted to measure the slowest of slow.
I then took the average ground-ball rates of each season and filtered out the players who hit grounders at a below-average level.
Then, I matched his ground-ball rate to the following season’s wOBA.
In the end, 63 players from the 2015-2019 seasons fit the criteria.
As the 2020 season hasn’t happened yet, I couldn’t use ground-ball rates from the 2019 campaign.
After creating a scatter plot between a player’s ground-ball percentage and his wOBA the following season, I expected an R2 value close to one, implying that ground-ball percentage indirectly impacted his following season’s wOBA.
But, rather surprisingly, the data showed that no such relationship exists.
If you’re interested in the study, the link can be found here.
There are a couple of interesting conclusions that our data allowed us to further pursue:
- Surprisingly, a slow player’s wOBA doesn’t depend on how many ground-balls he hit the previous year.
- A sluggish player’s wOBA doesn’t depend on how many ground-balls he hit during that season.
The dataset showed Ramos can hit for a high ground-ball percentage, but still post a quality wOBA the following year.
Overall, the study bodes well for Ramos’ 2020 season. Despite a high-ground ball percentage, historical data suggests that should have little influence on his 2020 campaign.
I also plotted another scatter plot that compared the ground-ball rates of the same players and his wOBA that season.
In a surprising turn of events, the correlation coefficient was small, suggesting that a sluggish player’s ground-ball rate has no correlation with his wOBA, which can be found here.
That being said, I want to mention the limitations of these conclusions:
- It’s biased, showing players who are either on the tail end of his careers or aren’t the fleetest of foot. Due to these factors, the players are not representative of the average age and speed of the average MLB player.
- In addition, the sample size isn’t exactly as big as I’d prefer to use for a study of this nature, but due to the fact that Sprint Speed data is only available from the 2015 season and on, there’s no other accurate way to measure a runner’s speed.
- In addition, multiple players in different seasons appeared on the dataset.
I’m pointing out these flaws, not because I don’t think you should take this conclusion with a grain of salt, but rather that it’s important to note the factors that are impossible to control.
This is unfortunately the cost of dealing with new data.
Anyway, the conclusion from the study indicates that ground balls have no effect on a slow player’s wOBA, during this season or the following one.
This assertion now opens a whole new can of worms.
Is this hitting this many ground-balls a good idea?
I checked Ramos’ 2019 wOBA on certain types of batted-balls and compared it to the league-average marks.
Ramos’ wOBA values on these certain types of batted balls indicate that instead of keeping the same approach, it would be beneficial to increase his launch angles.
For those who are visual learners, here’s a chart from Fangraphs that shows a 15-game rolling window of Ramos’ line-drive percentage and his corresponding wOBA throughout the 2019 season.
Aside from a brief dip in June, his wOBA increases when his line-drive percentage climbs.
It can’t just be a coincidence; the data shows that hitting more balls in the air impacts Ramos’ wOBA in a positive light.
The bright side is Ramos is reportedly doing just that.
In his recent Fangraphs piece, Rian Watt jotted down that, “There’s some indication he’s taken the offseason to belatedly join the fly-ball revolution, and how that (or other) shifts in his offensive profile work out will have a lot to do with how he performs in 2020.”
Anthony DiComo of MLB.com added that Ramos “worked with an independent hitting coach this offseason.
Ramos made significant mechanical changes in an effort to increase his launch angle, working on avoiding “cutting” his swing.”
Those changes were plenty evident in March’s edition of Spring Training, where Ramos went deep once and smacked a couple of doubles in 31 at-bats.
Ramos also homered twice during the Mets’ recent intrasquad games.
— Jacob Resnick (@Jacob_Resnick) July 17, 2020
Per his Instagram, Ramos has been working a lot with hitting coach Richardo Sosa, whose clientele includes J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Giancarlo Stanton, three of the Majors’ most fearsome sluggers.
Martinez, in particular, worked with Sosa to revamp his swing to emphasize an increased launch angle and, as they say, the rest is history.
With Sosa in his back pocket, and the early returns looking good, Ramos could be poised for a breakout 2020. Should he not fix his ground-ball issues, he’ll still continue as an offense-first backstop, a post that he’s held for the last decade.
But if he implements these changes, he could enter into the upper tier of MLB catchers.
Hitting a ton of ground-balls is an approach that Ramos has succeeded with in the past, but with an optimal launch angle, he can be even better in 2020.