Heading into 2012 the Nats were heralded as a team with catching depth. They had traded Derek Norris but still have Wilson Ramos, Jesus Flores, and a number of prospects like Sandy Leon working their way through the minors. The Nats ended up needing all of that catching depth and because of Jesus Flores’ total disregard for his own well being he hit only .213/.248/.329 in 296 plate appearances. Flores stuck around on the roster and caught everyday when most players would have been on the DL, but the Nats needed him, because as bad as those numbers were injuries to Leon and Solano left them with no one else to turn to.
It is overlooked how poorly Nats catchers hit in 2012 with a total team batting line of .237/.294/.365 when the MLB average was .248/.318/.400. In all other up the middle positions the Nats were above average offensively, but they were well below average at catcher. It is hard to say it hurt them as even with the poor production they were able to win 98 games, but it is also hard to ignore the fact that the return of Wilson Ramos and the presence Kurt Suzuki could have a major impact on the 2013 season.
In his brief career Wilson Ramos has been a well above average hitting catcher with a batting line of .269/.333/.432. If Ramos is fully healthy and ends up doing the majority of the catching that is going to have a major impact on the Nats offense. Bill James projections have Ramos at a .269/.324/.426 batting line for 2013. That is slightly below his career averages, but Ramos is also coming off of a major knee injury so it looks about right. Now let’s figure that Ramos gets the majority of plate appearances as the Nats catcher and number eight hitter. In 2012 the Nats number 8 hitter had 639 PA and hit .245/.306/.367. Give Ramos 400 of those plate appearances and the rest the remaining 239 to Kurt Suzuki at the Bill James projection level of .247/.306/.360.
Lucky for me that .306 is the same as the Nats OBP from the number eight spot in 2012 so we only have to deal with the 400 PA. In those 400 plate appearances with a .324 OBP Ramos would reach base 130 times and Suzuki 73 times for an increase of nine times on base over 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but it does have an impact. Of those nine times Nats number nine hitters with last season’s OBP of .269 would reach base two additional times which would give Denard Span an extra couple opportunities to bat. When in a division race as tight as the Nationals are expected to be in any little bit is going to help. That total of eleven extra base runners doesn’t look like much but think of a base as a run value of .25 and then those eleven base runners become three additional runs or 0.3 WAR which was Michael Morse’s 2012 fWAR.
Comparing Ramos and Suzuki to the Nats average number eight hitter gives us one value of extra runners, but Nats catchers didn’t always bat eighth in 2012. If we simply look at catcher vs. catcher then we are looking at 634 plate appearances that produced 185 base runners. Again with 400 PA Ramos would reach base 130 times and in the additional 234 Suzuki 72 times for an improvement of 17 base runners from the catchers spot and if we figure and average OBP of .300 beyond them an additional 5 beyond that for a total of 22 additional base runners or 5.5 additional runs which now gives us the 0.5 fWAR of Chad Tracy. Simply by having Ramos and Suzuki as the catchers for the entire season the Nats have managed to clone Chad Tracy. That is not insignificant.
The Bill James projections for both Ramos and Suzuki are below their career averages and if Ramos grabs most of the playing time he could preform even better. Even with this modest projections the Nats are looking at a 0.3 to 0.5 win improvement due to the upgraded catcher’s situation. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but add it in to having Span over Morse, Haren over Jackson, Soriano over Lidge and H-Rod, and you start to get the point. The Nats won 98 games in 2012 and some of that was due to breakouts from Gio Gonzalez and Ian Desmond and a late career surge from Adam LaRoche. Even if those three players take moderate steps back in 2013 the Nats roster is better than it was in 2012, and a big part of that is going to be having Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki doing most of the catching.