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Ramos proud of new mark for games caught

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Ramos proud of new mark for games caught

PHILADELPHIA — Wilson Ramos didn't realize it until informed Tuesday afternoon. But upon learning he had played in his 114th game of the season the previous night, establishing a new career high, the Nationals catcher couldn't hold back a wide smile.

"You tell me that right now, and it makes me feel excited," he said. "I've been working really, really hard to be healthy to be behind the plate for a lot of games. And this year I did it well. It makes me feel good, because I'm doing what I was working for. It feels really good."

Since appearing in 113 games as a rookie in 2011, Ramos had been striving to make it through a full season healthy. And he simply hadn't been able to do it, limited to a grand total of 191 games from 2012-14.

At last, though, he has pulled it off, thanks in large part (he believes) to the work he did before ever arriving in Viera for spring training. A rigorous conditioning and strengthening program has allowed him to avoid the kind of leg injuries that hampered him so many times before and allowed him to maintain his weight through the grind of a long year.

"All the work I did before the season helped me for the season," he said. "I think that helped me to be healthy. All I did, I did well."

Ramos on Tuesday was slated to catch his 113th game, a number that trails only the Padres' Derek Norris (a former Nationals prospect) in the NL. (His two other appearances this year came as a DH and pinch-hitter.) If he maintains his current pace, he'll finish the season with 128 games behind the plate, easily surpassing his longstanding goal of 120.

So, how does Ramos feel physically at this point in the season?

"I feel good," he insisted. "It's not easy to be behind the plate for 113 games, but that's my job and I've been working for that. I don't feel anything tired on my body right now. When I get home after the season, maybe I'll feel it. But when I come here every day, I'm mentally strong and ready."

The heavy workload may or may not have had a negative effect on Ramos' offensive performance. He has been inconsistent at the plate throughout the season, resulting in a .237 batting average, 13 homers, 47 RBI and .633 OPS that ranks 22nd out of 24 major-league catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

"I know I can do better than I did this season," he said. "But it happens in baseball. I'm working hard to be consistent every time. This year, I had some really long slumps, for me. But I didn't put my head down. I kept working. And after that, I had an 11-game hitting streak. That's what I want to do. I want to be consistent."

Offensive inconsistencies aside, Ramos' work behind the plate has satisfied the Nationals. His 44.7 percent caught-stealing rate is tops among all big-league catchers with at least 40 innings played this season. His 10.3 defensive rating, according to Fangraphs, rank second in the NL behind only Yadier Molina.

"It's a demanding position, for sure, and I think he's held up just fine," manager Matt Williams said. "He's done a nice job of throwing guys out, blocking the baseball and making sure he's keeping our guys competitive within the game. He's done great. It's difficult for any catcher, but he wants to play every day. He has desire to do that, and I think he's kept himself in good shape and he's prepared."

MORE NATIONALS: Werth laments "opportunity lost" this season

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Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

If the Nationals can’t re-sign Bryce Harper, don't expect them to go searching for a high-priced free agent like Michael Brantley to replace him. 

(A note: This is still an if! We haven't closed the door on Harper staying in DC.) 

The Nationals already have a promising in-house solution if Harper walks: Victor Robles.

Robles is currently rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, according to MLBpipeline.com. Robles has played 34 games for the Nationals over the last two season including 21 in 2018.  His slash line this September was .288/.348/.525 with three doubles, three home runs, a triple, and 10 RBI.

Of course there's upsides to known quantities like Brantley - even if he comes with injury concerns: He hit .309 last year with 17 home runs and 76 RBI last season. In 2014, he finished third in American League MVP voting. He had a slash line of .307/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 97 RBI. The following season, Brantley led the Majors with 45 doubles. 

If you can’t stand batters that strike out, Brantley is the guy for you.

In 613 plate appearances in 2018, Brantley struck out just 60 times. His 9.5 strikeouts per 100 at bats was tied for second-best in the MLB. By comparison, Harper’s strikeout ratio in 2018 was 24.3%. As a team, the Nationals finished tied for sixth in fewest strikeouts per game (7.96). Additionally, Brantley led qualified hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent) in 2018. 

But even with all that, there's some question marks here if the Nats opt to swap Harper for a slightly lower-priced free agent: Brantley is a left fielder.

Over his career, Brantley has spent some time in center field but has not played there since 2015. What would the Nationals outfield alignment look like if they signed Brantley? 

Of the 112 games Juan Soto started with the Nationals this past season, all 112 were in left field. Adam Eaton’s strongest defensive position is right field. The likely answer would be move Soto to right field (where he played in the minors), Eaton to center, and keep Brantley in left field. Eaton was the Nationals’ Opening Day centerfielder in 2017.

So while a team like the Phillies may be looking to spend the money on an outfielder like Brantley, if Harper doesn't return, don't expect the Nationals to enter the market. 

At least not while their prospects look so promising.

MORE ON MICHAEL BRANTLEY

 

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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