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Wilson Ramos has had a better defensive year than you may think

Wilson Ramos. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)

Wilson Ramos is known more for his offense than his defense, but this season, he is hitting .228 with 15 home runs and a .616 OPS, below the league average for catchers, and he’s shown more improvement behind the plate than in the batter’s box.

“He’s one of the best in the league,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, a former major league catcher. “The highest percentage of people throwing. The second least wild pitches in the league. The least amount of passed balls. And in the last year, he’s caught two no-hitters.”

A deep look at Ramos’ season shows he has been a solid defensive catcher in some ways. His biggest asset has been his right arm: He leads the majors in caught stealing rate (45 percent) among catchers with a minimum of 40 attempts.

Ramos has always had a strong throwing arm; it was a matter of Nationals pitchers improving their times to the plate and holding runners, and Ramos growing more comfortable. Last season, Ramos had a 38 percent caught stealing rate.

“The pitchers’ times gives me time to get the runners out,” he said. “I’ve always worked on consistency of the throws. Randy has helped me a lot and told me not to do more than I can. When there’s a quick runner on the bases, you try and hurry. And when you do that, you skip it or rush the throw. He told me take my time and act the same no matter the speed of the runner.”

Case in point: Dee Gordon, the Marlins’ speedster who is second in the majors with 56 stolen bases. Ramos has thrown him out four times in eight attempts. Ramos said he treats the final warm-up from the pitcher in between innings as he would a steal attempt. He doesn’t easily throw the ball down to second base from a squat. Instead, he jumps up and throws hard as usual.

“I act like there’s a runner on base,” he said. “Keeps me focused.”

Ramos has also been surprisingly good at blocking balls. Of catchers with at least 100 games caught, he has the second fewest wild pitches (26, behind Buster Posey’s 20). But that is also a credit to the pitching staff. Ramos also has three passed balls, tied for second fewest behind leader Brian McCann among catchers with 100 games.

And because wild pitches and passed balls stats can be deceiving, Baseball Prospectus developed an advanced metric that compared real and actual wild pitches and passed ball and predicted ones. Ramos, who didn’t rank highly before, is first in the majors.

That is surprising considering Ramos blocks balls with his hands instead of dropping to his knees to use his body.

“He does it unorthodox,” Knorr said. “He doesn’t go all the way down. He asked me about it. ‘If balls are getting away from you and there are a bunch of wild pitches, I’m gonna say “Hey, you gotta get down. But why would you change what you do?”’

When Ramos returned from right knee surgery in 2013, he was at first worried about banging the joint against the ground. He also couldn’t bend the right knee exactly the same as the left, so he began using his hands more.

“It’s worked well and I’ve grown comfortable with it,” he said. “I’ve felt good doing it and I’m avoiding hitting my knee hard on the ground.”

Ramos still struggles at receiving throws from the outfield and has been average, or worse, at stealing strikes by framing pitches. One scout who watched Ramos play recently rated his arm strength as plus but noted that he was an overall average catcher because of receiving and framing skills. The Nationals have pushed Ramos to put in extra work on catching outfield throws. Backup Jose Lobaton is more deft at both thanks to his quick hands.

Nationals pitchers have a 3.48 ERA when throwing to Ramos in 123 games. In a much smaller sample size, pitchers have a 4.39 ERA throwing to lesser-used Lobaton in only 40 games. But catchers’ ERA is fickle because it is dependent on body of work and the pitcher’s ability that day.

Ramos has remained healthy for the first time in years and played in a career-high 126 games. But his offense, and especially his power, have dipped. He is making $3.55 million and next season will be his last before free agency. Lobaton is under two more seasons of control. The Nationals may add catcher to the list of potential upgrades to explore in the offseason.