Every year, a number of starting pitchers seemingly come out of nowhere to become significant contributors at the major-league level. Sometimes, like in the case of Jacob deGrom, the sudden evolution is real and sustainable. In the case of the majority of short-term success stories, the league adjusts, the pitcher can’t respond to those adjustments, and he disappears from the major-league scene or he settles into a lesser role.
Earlier this week, we took a look at one such pitcher who got off to a fabulous start this season before crashing to earth: the Seattle Mariners’ Mike Montgomery. Today, we’ll take a look at the player dealt to the Rays by the Mariners for Montgomery at the end of the past spring training, right-hander Erasmo Ramirez. The 25-year-old was pummeled beyond recognition in his first two outings as a Ray, but has quietly fashioned a very nice season in Tampa, with a 10-4, 3.57, traditional line at present. Have the Rays uncovered a low-cost, high-performance starting pitcher, as they have so many times in the past? Or is it a matter of time until he starts being pounded on pitches in the fat part of the zone, as he did for much of his tenure in Seattle? Let’s take a look at Ramirez’ 2015 batted-ball data and make some observations.
I have some personal history with Ramirez from my time with the Mariners, including some time spent in the same high-rise in downtown Seattle. My first recollections of him were the game reports on his early outings from his second season in the Venezuelan Summer League after signing for a modest signing bonus the prior year. Every outing was seemingly flawless, both in terms of numbers and the qualitative reviews of the coaching staff. He walked all of five batters in 80 innings pitched that summer. I couldn’t wait to lay eyes on him in spring training.
He did not disappoint. He pounded the strike zone with a heavy fastball that touched 94 mph, and showed good feel for his changeup. His breaking ball needed reps, and he did tend to catch too much of the strike zone with his fastball, but hey, he hadn’t turned 20 yet. There was still plenty of time for him to polish his game.
The biggest impression Ramirez made upon me was with his makeup and personality. The young Nicaraguan had a good feel for the English language and was loving every day of his spring-training experience. He took his craft seriously, but there was no way to wipe the smile from his face as he made his way from bullpen to back field to locker room at the Peoria complex. We decided that he was ready for a challenge, and skipped him over our two US-based short-season affiliates, assigning him to Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League.
He easily met the standard, taking a regular turn in the rotation and posting a sterling 117/21 K/BB ratio in 151.2 IP. After 2011 spring training, we challenged him again, jumping him to Double-A, where he again posted strong strikeout (K) and walk (BB) numbers and earned a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma while still only 21 years old. Sure, he was punished to a greater extent by advanced upper-minor-league hitters for the mistakes he made in the strike zone, but he was still way ahead of the game.
Each year, I compile my own ordered minor-league lists of top full-season-league position-player and starting-pitcher prospects based on performance and age relative to league and level. These basically serve as follow lists, with the orders then tweaked based on traditional scouting methods. Ramirez, thanks in large part to his puny walk totals, qualified for my list four times, each in the top 100. He ranked in the top 50 twice, peaking at #22 after the 2011 season. He never did crack a Baseball America Top 100 list, likely due to his relatively small stature (5’11”, 200), as well as his average-at-best breaking stuff.
Another factor that may have held him back from receiving more national acclaim was the glass-half-empty view that some in the organization had adopted toward Ramirez. His sunny disposition was at times misinterpreted as a lack of seriousness, and his present shortcomings, rather than his gifts, were often emphasized. Every player is different, and there is no ideal motivational tool; while you might need to “go to the whip” to get certain players to perform, this was not necessary with Ramirez. There wasn’t a single spring-training mistake in the zone made by Ramirez that wasn’t noted sternly and publicly, and over time, he began to pitch scared. That’s a recipe for disaster at the major-league level, even if you’re pitching in Safeco Field.
Ramirez was shuttled back and forth to Triple-A through the 2014 season, with gradually diminishing success. He used up his last minor-league option that year, and came to 2015 spring training knowing that he would either make the club, or get a change of scenery. He made a nice run at a spot on the Mariners’ staff, but was eventually designated for assignment, setting up the eventual deal with the Rays for their reclamation project, Montgomery.
His first two outings for the Rays were unmitigated disasters, as he allowed 15 earned runs in 5.1 innings. Things have, to put it mildly, settled in rather nicely since, as he’s posted a 2.35 ERA in his last 110.2 IP. How has he done it? Let’s take a look at his plate-appearance frequency and production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data, both on a full-season basis, and separating those two brutal outings from the rest. First, the frequency information:
|FREQ – 2015|
The full-season data is on top, followed by his first two outings in the middle, and the rest on the bottom. Let’s take the bad outings with a grain of salt: the sample is so small that we shouldn’t belabor it, but looking at his seasonal numbers without them being poisoned by those two games is appropriate in this case, I would argue, as he was clearly working on some adjustments that had yet to yield dividends.
Ramirez’ ability to throw strikes at will, his core skill, had slipped away from him late in his Mariner days, and didn’t immediately to return after he became a Ray. Even now, his seasonal walk rate of 6.8% is higher than the average of AL ERA qualifiers, with a 56 percentile rank. Take out those first two outings, however, and the old Erasmo is back: his 5.9% walk rate since April 15, and the corresponding 34 percentile rank, is where it needs to be for Ramirez to make a long-term living as a major-league starting pitcher. His seasonal K rate of 18.4% is just shy of the average of AL ERA qualifiers, with a 45 percentile rank.
Ramirez had consistently been a fly-ball pitcher as a Mariner, and that has definitely changed since his move way south and east. He has posted a well above-average seasonal grounder rate, good for a 72 percentile rank. That mark was even higher at 97 in his first two outings, but he allowed high ball-in-play (BIP) authority and struggled to throw strikes in those outings; he was clearly working on getting the ball down in the zone with his fastball in those outings, and paid dearly during the transition period.
Interestingly, Ramirez has shown an aptitude for inducing popups (86 percentile rank) while running a high grounder rate this season. That’s a very unusual combination; Ubaldo Jimenez is another pitcher who has pulled it off in 2015, and he’s done it in his better seasons in the past. It will be difficult to replicate in the future for Ramirez, so further future career ups and downs might be in the offing. Also, Ramirez’ line-drive rate percentile rank is pretty low at 26; liner rates fluctuate more than those of other BIP types, so negative regression might be waiting around the corner.
Based on the frequency data, there appears to be a foundation for at least average starting pitching in the future: K and BB rates around the MLB average for ERA qualifiers, an emerging grounder tendency and an elevated pop-up rate, which at least shows the ability to change the hitter’s eye level and get outs up in the zone. We need to assess the BIP authority allowed by Ramirez, however, before we make truly informed observations regarding his performance. To get a handle on that piece of the puzzle, let’s move on to his production allowed by BIP type data, presented in the same manner as the frequency data:
|PROD – 2015|
|E.Ramirez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Thru 4/15||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Since 4/15||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.
Again, let’s not belabor the very small-sample size data in the middle rows. In fact, let’s focus primarily on the seasonal data in the top section, at least for now. Not only has Ramirez allowed a relatively low fly-ball rate, he’s contained production in the air. Batters have hit just .140 AVG-.526 SLG on fly balls, for an 83 REL PRD. Contextual adjustments cause only a modest upward bump to 89. He has been quite lucky on liners, allowing just .542 AVG-.806 SLG (67 REL PRD), which is adjusted up to almost exactly league average (99) for context. While he does induce plenty of grounders, they are hit harder than the league average, as evidenced by his context-adjusted 116 ADJ PRD.
When all BIP are taken into consideration, Ramirez has allowed just a .272 AVG-.416 SLG on all BIP, for a 72 REL PRD, or Unadjusted Contact Score. Contextual adjustments bump that up to an 87 Adjusted Contact Score, which is still quite good. If you would have told some members of his previous organization that he would someday be an above-average contact manager, they wouldn’t have believed it.
For the season, his “tru” ERA, based on the contact authority he has allowed, is 3.29, better than his actual mark of 3.57 but below his component ERA of 2.80. Take a gander down to the bottom of the table and look at his gaudy 2.35 and 2.34 actual and component ERAs since April 15, as well as his 3.08 “tru” ERA since that date, unaffected by those two brutal early April outings. That is the pitcher the Rays got for a relative song at the end of spring training.
Sure, his liner rate is likely to regress upward, and it will be tough to pull off the high pop-up/grounder rate Daily Double moving forward. Let’s say he’s an average contact manager, with average K/BB skills moving forward. His average velocity allowed by BIP type says that’s what he is. He’s allowed an average velocity of 88.3 mph on all BIP to date; the AL average for ERA qualifiers is 88.1 mph. For fly balls, liners and grounders, respectively, he’s allowed averages of 89.6, 92.6 and 86.7 mph, compared to league averages of 89.8, 92.6 and 85.5 MPH. Average, across the board.
And average is awesome. Somewhere between 180 and 200 innings with quality equal to the average ERA qualifier is worth big bucks these days. Plus, there’s still some upside. Ramirez has always been a big bat-misser, and his 2015 11.6% swing-and-miss rate is a career best, and over one standard deviation above the average of AL ERA qualifiers. His average fastball velocity may be a career low 90.7 mph, but more heavy usage of his four-seamer, which has shown better late action in all regions of the zone, has paid off handsomely.
It’s taken awhile, but Ramirez has evolved into the pitcher I thought he would become. Kudos to the Rays for focusing on the many things he does well, allowing him to again feel good about himself and make the targeted adjustments that have allowed him to tap into his potential.