Blue Jays’ Prospects McGuire and Ramirez have taken important steps forward in 2018

 

At a time when Blue Jays fans are looking to the future, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez have increased their value in 2018

 

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On August 1, 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays traded Drew Hutchison to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez. Regardless what becomes of McGuire and Ramirez, the trade will always be viewed as a successful one for the Blue Jays. While Hutch has since pitched in only 32.2 MLB innings, Liriano provided 1) 1.5 fWAR over 132 regular season innings pitched, 2) a clean one and two-thirds innings in extras during the 2016 Wild Card game and 3) Teoscar Hernandez.

 

Nevertheless, I’ve always had an eye on the development of McGuire and Ramirez. Obviously, I’m happy to see any Blue Jays prospect succeed, but their success in particular would make the Hutchison trade one of the most lop-sided ever. It’d be like having your cake and eating it too. And then a baker bringing you two more delicious cakes.

 

Before the 2016 season, both prospects had made a few Top 100 lists. Ramirez made the BA and BP lists in 2016, while McGuire made the BA (2014-15), BP (2014-16) and MLB (2015-16) lists on multiple occasions. By the time of the trade, clear narratives emerged for each. Ramirez was the bat-first corner outfielder who might not have enough power to stick at the position. McGuire was the defence-first catcher (and nearly sure-fire MLB backup) who needed to show some more power to stick as an everyday player. While they both had paths to being MLB regulars, improvements would first have to be made, with power being the common problem.

 

Ramirez’s main issue was that he didn’t put the ball in the air nearly enough. In 2016, his 2.00 GB/FB ranked 13th out of 148 qualified batters at the AA level. Consequently, his .097 ISO ranked 110th. In 2017, the situation only got worse—his 2.20 GB/FB ranked 11th across AA, while his .092 ISO ranked 129th. It is very difficult to be a productive MLB hitter with an ISO under .100.

 

2018 has been a different experience for Harold Ramirez, in a good way. This season, he’s managed to decrease his ground ball rate to its lowest level, while increasing the rate at which he hits outfield flies to its highest level. If we add up the plate appearances that tend to be productive (walks, liners and outfield flies), Ramirez is posting his best mark at the AA level. Ditto for the share of PA that tend to be unproductive (strikeouts, grounders and infield flies).

 

 

These batted ball changes have helped drive a mild power surge, with Ramirez posting his best ISO at the level, supported by his lowest AA GB/FB (1.34). Additionally, he’s posting an elite BABIP once again, which has helped drive his above-average overall production at the plate.

 

 

Breaking down his season chronologically highlights his in-season development. In April, it looked like he might replicate his 2017 struggles. However, he has managed to improve his power and overall production each successive month that followed.

 

 

If we focus on his 264 plate appearances since the start of May, we find that there is a lot to like in Ramirez’s performance once the weather warmed. His excellent BABIP and decent strikeout rate have propelled him to a .316 batting average, while his power surge has led to a .152 ISO. Unfortunately, I don’t have batted ball data broken down by game or even month, so I can’t say whether his OFFB% gains started in May as well. His strong production has led Fisher Cats coach John Schneider to move Ramirez to the fifth spot in the batting order. Plus, during Vladdy Jr.’s recent off-days, he’s been moved up to third in the order.

 

All told, Ramirez’s 118 wRC+ ranks 50th among 173 qualified batters across the AA level, made extra impressive by the fact that he is still about a year younger than the average AA player. His improvements in 2018 have manifested in an increased Steamer projection—his pre-season projection of a 76 wRC+ has improved to an 82. If he maintains an ISO around .150 over the final weeks of the season, that projection will likely continue to improve.

 

1243 plate appearances into his AA career, Harold Ramirez is due for a promotion to AAA Buffalo some point soon. There isn’t much space at the moment, but a trade of Curtis Granderson or yet another injury to someone could create some. Keeping up his recent performances in Buffalo would then put him in line for a shot at the big leagues.

 

McGuire’s situation is a little different than that of Ramirez. As an excellent catcher, McGuire is already essentially assured of a big-league backup job—after all, legendary backup catcher Jeff Mathis played over 800 games in the majors in spite of his 50 wRC+. However, improved production at the plate would help him compete for a starter’s role.

 

His situation is also different in terms of how the last few seasons have played out. Like Ramirez, he played a full season in 2016, starting at AA Jamestown and finishing in New Hampshire, with serviceable production overall—his 90 wRC+ was middle of the pack for a AA catcher that year—but very little power—his .078 ISO was poor, even for a catcher.

 

Last year, their experiences were quite different. First of all, McGuire suffered a knee injury in early May that limited him to a total of 136 PA at the AA level, 63 prior to the injury and 73 afterwards. Secondly, unlike Ramirez, he managed to produce a .217 ISO and a 134 wRC+, a very good small sample showing.

 

The main caveat was that his power surge came as a left-handed batter in one of the most lefty-friendly parks in North America (306 feet to right field)—his home ISO was .380, while his away ISO was .092. Nevertheless, even that .092 ISO (while accomplished over only 76 PA) was an improvement over past results.

 

Unfortunately, just like Ramirez, McGuire started his 2018 season very slowly, in his case at AAA Buffalo. From early April through to mid-May, McGuire’s bat was even colder than the below-normal temperatures. He was striking out four times as often as he walked, rarely got on base and hit for no power. The result was a miniscule wRC+.

 

 

Pardon the arbitrary cut-offs, but since mid-May, McGuire has been producing. While he continued to strike out in about one-fifth of his plate appearances (which is normal nowadays), he nearly tripled his walk rate and ISO, while doubling his BABIP. The result, this time, was well above-average hitting production.

 

For the season, he’s now producing at a league-average rate. Like Ramirez, his strong showing in 2018 has elevated his big-league projections somewhat—whereas Steamer projected him as a 70 wRC+ hitter in the big leagues before the season started, they now have him as a 75 wRC+ hitter. Baby steps. Nevertheless, a 75 wRC+ is decent for a backup catcher these days—Brian McCann‘s 75 wRC+ ranks him 36th among the 60 catchers with at least 65 PA in 2018 (my goal being to try to include each team’s starter and backup).

 

Unlike Ramirez, there hasn’t been a clear change in McGuire’s batted ball profile this season, relative to recent years at AA. In particular, he’s doing all the good things about as often as he did before. It’s highly likely that his batted profile before May 19th, 2018 was a lot different to what it has been since then. Again, unfortunately, I don’t have batted ball data for the minor leaguers that can be split, so I cannot confirm that to be true.

 

 

While it’s still hard to predict the future of these two Blue Jays prospects, the baseline expectation for both has definitely improved this season. Ramirez seems to be doing exactly what evaluators felt he needed to: elevate the ball. Trading some grounders for some outfield flies has led to a power surge and, along with a strong strikeout rate, improved production overall. It will be very interesting to see how far this power surge takes him.

 

The data doesn’t necessarily clarify the why, but McGuire has certainly made his own improvements at the plate. While time will make clear the extent and sustainability of these improvements, what is clear right now is that McGuire has a very good shot at a career in the majors. He’s got all the tools to handle the job behind the plate and he seems to have developed his hitting enough to be a solid backup today (or thereabouts). If his recent improvements hold up, we may soon be justified in expecting even more from him.

 

This discussion serves as a good example of why I’m so optimistic about the Jays future. In the past, this would more likely have been a post speculating on why maybe, just maybe, the Jays top corner outfield and catching prospects have improved enough that we could dream on them becoming MLB regulars. Instead, in this post, I’ve been talking about one prospect (Ramirez) who isn’t even in the Jays’ Top 30 and another (McGuire) who is behind a guy that is already viewed as ready to catch everyday in the majors (Danny Jansen) and is amongst one of the deepest catching prospect pools in the majors. Exciting times!

 

 

 

 

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.