To give a sense of magnitude, a hypothetical team with catchers who helped a staff lower its ERA by 0.66 would save about 108 runs. That’s worth about a dozen extra wins or the difference between being a .500 team and making the playoffs.
What catchers have such huge influence? Buster Posey’s catcher ERA is 3.79. His backup in San Francisco is 4.77. The Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis is 3.08. L.A.’s other backstops have respective ERAs of 3.67 and 3.77. Miami backup Jeff Mathis may be the best; he has improved three different staffs significantly in the last three years but seldom plays; he’s a .197 career hitter. Most teams show little difference among their catchers, but those who do have a huge advantage.
Perhaps the biggest factor in how much the Nats bounce back the rest of this season and next is whether the often-injured Ramos can start at least 75-80 percent of their games.
Before you say, “Maybe it’s a fluke,” look at the career ERAs of every current Nats starter except for Ross Ohlendorf, who has made only two spot starts for Washington. In nearly every case, Ramos is better by a gap that ranges from significant to huge:
●Stephen Strasburg, 2.72 in 20 starts with Ramos vs. 3.27 in 13 Suzuki starts;
●Gio Gonzalez, 2.54 in 13 Ramos starts vs. 3.66 in 101 starts with Suzuki (many in Oakland);
●Ross Detwiler, 3.00 in 105 innings with Ramos vs. 4.24 in 1101
3 innings with Suzuki;
●Taylor Jordan is 3.22 vs. 4.70 in limited starts with each;
●Dan Haren is the most stark: a 2.81 ERA in 11 Ramos games and 5.05 in 25 Suzuki starts, including some in Oakland when Haren was younger and better.
Only Jordan Zimmermann has done slightly better with Suzuki, 3.50 to 3.54.
In the Nats’ bullpen this year, Rafael Soriano has pitched to Suzuki 28 times with a 4.28 ERA and to Ramos 21 times with a 3.43 ERA. In their careers, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus all have lower ERAs with Ramos, Mattheus by almost two full runs.
Why? “Ramos will pitch inside more,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I like the way Ramos sets his target better than Suzuki,” who sets his mitt very low.
Beyond that: silence. Baseball is the chatty game. You can ask anything, except, “How do you pitch to that guy?” That’s the central secret.
Pitch-calling is such a dark art that your only rational recourse is to see which catcher wins most often. For now, that’s Ramos. Why? What’s the origin of his success? Will it continue? He has played just 204 games.
“I followed Ivan Rodriguez’s career when I was young,” Ramos said in an interview in a Nats in-house publication. “Getting an opportunity to play with him here [in late 2010 and all of ’11] was unbelievable. . . . I think calling the game is the most important thing for the catcher.”