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What's-not-amatta-u: In praise of Ramon Hernandez

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Baseball fans are a negative sort, quick to seethe over a bad pitch thrown, to emphasize the "loser" over the "loveable." Many of us keep a shortlist of players who we'd like to run out of town. The statistically-inclined might skew even more pessimistic, prone to seeing regression in everything and striking down a breakout performance as a statistical aberration. While I usually enjoy the smug satisfaction that skepticism provides, stubbornness isn't nearly as fun. And it's liberating to admit you're wrong, especially when it's a player on your favorite team outperforming expectations.

Ramon Hernandez is far from the pincushion that  Adam Dunn or Willy Taveras were. But I can remember being bearish on Ramon almost every step of the way, until pretty recently. The trade that brought Ramon to Cincinnati in exchange for Ryan Freel et al. seemed just OK at the time. Early in 2009, Ramon was getting too much playing time. His 2009 as a whole, which included time lost to a knee injury, meant he should probably not be re-signed - or at least take backseat to Ryan Hanigan. His "clutch" capabilities were a myth. 2010 was probably his peak. And so on.

I've decided to take a revisionist look at a few claims that have been levied at Ramon in his 2+ years in Cincinnati. in my new, three-volume tome, A Catcher in the Why?: Learning to Quit my Clutch Man Moaning. Here's an excerpt:

CLAIM: The "Clutch Man" reputation is mostly bunk

"Clutch Man Monie." I rankled at the nickname when I first heard it. Not only is it almost as long as Ramon's actual name, it sounds like traditionalist bluster. But my knee-jerk reaction was heavy on the "jerk." It's hard to agree on a definition of "clutch hitting." And even with some stats to play with, each player will, by definition, be mostly measured against themselves. Over his entire career, Ramon outperforms his career averages or rises to level of objectively outstanding in many traditionally-recognized clutch situations:

.293/.355/.447 with runners aboard

.289/.361/.455 with runners in scoring position

.394/.470/.530 with a runner just at third

.265 .364 .400 with two outs and RISP

.295/.361/.464 in high-leverage situations

.275 .355 .422 in PAs after the 6th inning, with his team tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run at least on deck

.454 OBP in full counts

His clutch hasn't stalled since arriving in Cincinnati at age 33. In fact, after three seasons of negative WPA in Baltimore, Ramon has been in the positive each season as a Red. Though it's a volatile stat, he's currently clocking in at 1.06 this season. FanGraph's "clutch" stat judges 2009 to be Ramon's best year hitting in high leverage situations (relative to his "context-neutral" performance) since 2000.

CLAIM: Ramon Hernandez's defense is in decline

The aging curve is tough on catchers in their mid-30s. It's hard to argue that Ramon isn't going to suffer from attrition in the very near future. Fan Scouting reports, though small in voters sampled, give him positive reviews. There's probably no number that's going to get close to telling us how good a catcher Ramon is at this stage in his career. But he's still got the look and mien of a backstop.

Ramon has a reputation, in Cincinnati at least, as a respectable game-caller who develops a good rapport with his battery mates. That rep seems to be supported by the generally level-headed remarks he makes in the press, like his recent appraisal of Cueto's start. We do know his CS rate held steady at 35% in his first two seasons here, which is his best mark since 2006. He's currently catching 41% of would-be stealers. Getting 50% of starts suits him well.

CLAIM: Ramon's hitting ability, especially his power, must also be declining

It probably is declining, in a macro sense. Hernandez hit 15 HRs over 507 PAs (every 33.8 PAs) with the Orioles in 2008, in a park that is a perhaps slightly less of a launch-pad than Great American. In his first season with the Reds, Ramon only hit 5 in 331 PAs (every 66.2 PAs), his slugging percentage dropping to middle-infielder territory: .362. His power spiked in 2010, bumping his slugging percentage back up to a healthier .428.

His powerful 89 PAs this season notwithstanding, Ramon's power has diminished since he hit 23 HRs with the Orioles in 2006. But it's not a perfectly linear decline, showing signs of a late-career surge (or at least plateau). Those 89 PAs that are easily dismissed as small sample or a Great American ByProduct also suggest Ramon is healthy and capable of turning back the clock. His ISO bottomed out at .105 in 2009, climbed to .131 last season and currently sits at a staggering .277.

While this is as sustainable as his .800+ SLG at home, it could be a sign that part-time catching agrees with Ramon. Until 2009, Ramon routinely appeared in at least 110 games and crested 500 PAs about every other season. Reduced hours is not always a prelude to getting laid-off. It's OK to imagine the possibility that veteran experience brings some wisdom. Playing less has kept Ramon fresher and experience, combined with whatever salutory effect playing in Cincinnati has, appears to have given him a more mature plate approach - evidenced by his .354 OBP as a Red (24 points over his career average).