WASHINGTON -- Batting, in its simplest form, is about seeing the ball and hitting it. Now that Wilson Ramos can actually see the ball, he’s hitting as well as anyone in the game.
This past February, during his spring training medical exam, Ramos was told that due to his poor vision, he was a good candidate for Lasik surgery. It wasn’t the first time the procedure had been recommended to him. Last year, doctors suggested the same thing, but the Washington Nationals' catcher opted to try contact lenses instead.
“I was afraid of the surgery and didn’t know much about it,” said Ramos, who claims that he had trouble last season seeing the numbers on the Nats Park scoreboard. He estimates that his uncorrected vision is around 20/100, if not worse. Even though contacts made it 20/20, the lenses -- which he tried for the first time last season -- gave him fits.
“They irritated my eyes a lot,” he said through team translator Octavio Martinez. “I kept putting them on, taking them off. I didn't use them all the time.”
And it showed. In 2015, Ramos -- a lifetime .269 hitter coming into the season who’d never hit below .265 -- posted a career-low .229 average and struck out a career-high 101 times. He drew just 21 walks in more than 500 plate appearances, and his 4.81 K/BB ratio was the fifth-worst in the National League.
So this past February, when team doctors floated the idea of Lasik again, Ramos, who’s in the final year of his contract and will become a free agent after this season, decided it was time to let the eyes have it. On March 4, two days into the Nats’ Grapefruit League schedule, the 28-year-old backstop had the corrective surgery done in Washington. Barely more than three months later, he says he’s a changed man. Or at least a changed hitter.
“On the street, everything seems the same and hasn’t changed too much,” Ramos said. “But when it comes to being on the field, recognizing pitches, looking at the board at night, everything is so much clearer. It becomes a lot easier, and I’m able to recognize the pitches.”
He’s not just recognizing them, he’s wrecking them.
In Monday’s series-opening 4-1 win over the Cubs, Ramos went 2-for-4, including a sixth-inning, opposite-field home run off starter Kyle Hendricks that put the Nats up for good. On the season, he’s now hitting .337, which would rank second in the NL, except that Ramos -- who missed the last week in April when he went on bereavement leave following the death of his grandfather -- is four plate appearances short of qualifying for the league leaders.
Despite the absence, he still leads all major league catchers with 10 homers and 35 RBIs. He has been so productive, so steady, that manager Dusty Baker has promoted him: After batting seventh for the majority of the season, Ramos has found himself batting fifth for the better part of the past two weeks.
“On this team,” Washington’s manager said, “he’s one of the most stable people I have.”
Given that Baker’s squad features last year’s MVP (Bryce Harper) and this year’s leading hitter (Daniel Murphy), and boasts the second-best record in baseball, that’s really saying something. But that’s how good Ramos has been. And to hear him tell it, his pumped-up peepers have played a big part.
“I’m definitely picking up the slider a lot better,” said the Venezuelan-born backstop, who came into the season with a .246 lifetime average against sliders and hit just .195 against the pitch last year. This season, he’s slamming sliders to the tune of a .302 average. He also believes that his improved eyes have resulted in, well, a better eye.
“My vision in the strike zone has gotten so much better than it was in previous years,” said Ramos, who prior to this year had a career K rate of 17.2 percent that was slightly better than the league average. This season, he has fanned just 24 times in 194 plate appearances. That’s a 12.2 percent K rate, which would put him just outside the NL’s top 10 (again, if he qualified). “Before, I would swing at balls that looked like they were in the zone and be free swinging at a lot of pitches out of zone. Now I'm able to zone in and picking it up so much better. I'm focused on my area and swinging at strikes.”
As staggering as Ramos’ results have been, his teammates aren’t surprised.
“It’s the same stance, it’s the same swing, it’s the same power,” said outfielder Jayson Werth, who has spent the past five and a half seasons playing alongside the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Ramos. “He's always had that in him. If anything, he's just being more consistent.”
Werth isn’t the only member of the Nationals who saw this coming.
“It's not like he was a guy that ever struck out a lot,” veteran infielder Danny Espinosa said of Ramos. “When he swings, he makes contact. It was a matter of getting him to swing the bat at pitches he could drive, rather than just putting balls in play. That's what he's doing and we're seeing the results.”
Well, not everyone is seeing them. At least not according to the most recent All-Star balloting data.
“He should be the starting catcher on the All-Star team,” Espinosa said of his teammate, who at last check was fourth in the NL balloting behind Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Miguel Montero. “It's a joke.”
In other words, there are plenty of fans who are still blind to the breakout year that Ramos is having. Nothing a little corrective surgery can’t cure.