JC Ramirez Got Better As a Starter

It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to experience difficulty as a starter, move to the bullpen, and benefit from almost immediate success. That’s a story we’ve heard plenty. We’re seeing it in Arizona right now, for example — with both Archie Bradley and Jorge de la Rosa — but they’re hardly the only cases. Bullpens are littered with failed starters. The best relief pitcher ever began his major-league career with a collection of uninspiring starts.

In Anaheim, though, we might possibly be witnessing a more rare type of story. Right-hander JC Ramirez is working as a a starter right now — for the first time since Double-A in 2011, actually — and, well, there are plenty of reasons to think he’ll be a good at it. Dude’s posting the best strikeout rate of his career, and it makes sense when you look under the hood.

As a reliever, Ramirez was mostly fastball first, slider second. He threw his four-seam fastball 61% of the time and his slider 25% of the time. The first was fast but straight, and the second fast and average in terms of whiffs. It all added up to a meh swinging-strike rate (9.5%, while average for an AL reliever last year was 11.1%) and strikeout rate (16.3% against an average of 22.7%).

JC Ramirez 2016 Pitch Mix Judged by Percentiles
Pitch Spin Horizontal Move Vertical Move Velocity % Used
Four-Seam 31 7 8 93 61%
Slider 85 73 86 26%
Two-Seam 47 59 97 13%
Change 64 80 45 1%
SOURCE: PITCHf/x
Percentile among all pitches, with assumption that ride is good for the four-seamer, drop good for two-seamer, slider, and change. Changeup movement and velocity defined off of fastball.

In the pen, there’s a real focus on velocity and the fastball. Add in some command issues, and you could see why a team would push Ramirez towards throwing the four-seam more often. This, despite the fact that it had bottom-tier spin and movement.

In fact, that spin, and lack of ride, probably gave us a hint about what Ramirez “should” be doing with his fastball mix. Look at how his percentiles are all better across the board for the two-seamer. When a pitcher has a low-spin fastball, he won’t get the sort of ride and zip in the zone that can lead to whiffs and bad contact. But he can use that lack of spin to get good sink.

Voila, this year Ramirez has completely shifted over to the two-seam, to the point where you wonder if he’s throwing mostly two-seamers despite the fact that 14% are still registering as four-seamers. Look at how his four-seamer is getting some sideways wiggle now. In any case, he changed his fastball mix. And that’s not all.

JC Ramirez 2017 Pitch Mix Judged by Percentiles
Pitch/Percentile Spin Horizontal Move Vertical Move Velocity % Used
Four-Seam 7 75 6 96 14%
Slider 77 59 92 41%
Two-Seam 45 65 95 26%
Curve 49 73 67 68 19%
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus
Percentile among all pitches, with assumption that ride is good for the four-seamer, drop good for two-seamer, slider, and change. Changeup movement and velocity defined off of fastball.

He really embraced that low-spin fastball and made it sink for him. He stepped up his slider usage. In those two decisions, he threw his better pitches more often.

And then he added a new pitch that grades well across the board. Let’s check out his new curveball, which has above-average movement and velocity:

Ramirez still has flaws. His command issues haven’t gone away. If you look at his ability to hit within a baseball’s width of the edges of the strike zone minus his tendency to hit the middle of the strike zone (New Heart% – Edge% for his fastballs), he doesn’t grade well.

Laggards in New Edge Minus Heart Percentage
Player Total Pitches Edge % Heart % Edge – Heart
Scott Oberg 168 17.3 8.9 8.3
Jake Odorizzi 226 13.3 4.9 8.4
Jonathan Holder 104 12.5 3.9 8.7
Jaime Garcia 341 17.0 7.9 9.1
Bud Norris 179 13.4 3.9 9.5
JC Ramirez 332 14.2 4.5 9.6
Jose Alvarez 114 14.9 5.3 9.7
George Kontos 112 12.5 2.7 9.8
Chris Devenski 203 12.8 3.0 9.9
Adam Warren 150 14.7 4.7 10.0
SOURCE: Statcast
Edge = one baseball’s width inside and outside of the edges of the strike zone
Heart = middle-middle
Minimum 100 total fastballs, n=354

That lines up with our subjective reports of lack of command. But! With a 97 mph sinker that has good movement, perhaps the heart of the zone isn’t as scary a place. That’s helped Ramirez to the best strikeout minus walk rate (K-BB%) of his career at any level (minimum 10 innings thrown), along with those good whiff and strikeout numbers mentioned earlier.

Ramirez did add a new pitch, and that’s often part of the story when a pitcher is trying to prove he can be a starter and get through the lineup multiple times. But it looks like the emphasis on getting through the lineup multiple times also led to a change — from the four-seam to the sinker — that better took advantage of his natural abilities. That’s a fun, and rare, story.

We hoped you liked reading JC Ramirez Got Better As a Starter by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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EonADS
Member
EonADS

There are always a couple guys like this, though a lot of times they’re slower pitchers. But I can always remember thinking that Yordano Ventura would’ve been better if he’d dropped the 4-seam entirely and thrown mostly 2-seamers and breaking balls. Nathan Eovaldi is another power pitcher I’m curious about in that regard.

Always interesting when pitchers undergo a transformation. Thanks for another great article, Eno.

feslenraster
Member
feslenraster

hey, serviceable, relatively healthy arms are always a plus.

EonADS
Member
EonADS

No argument from me. I was a command-only pitcher when I still played, and I lived and died by my sinker and curveball. I’m just pointing out that it’s rarer for a power pitcher to have a bad 4-seam.

feslenraster
Member
feslenraster

true

redsoxmaniac
Member
redsoxmaniac

Think having a bad four-seam can represent a multitude of things, including spin rate at top of strike zone vs. getting movement down with slower rates, command of at least one corner of the plate etc.

I don’t think its as rare as we think, but moreso lot of pitchers with command issues, by time they figure out a decent repertoire, have began to decline in velo (I think Eovaldi is around 94-97 vs. 97-100mph few years back). Their learning/feel aptitude is going against their age, so there are many pitchers that don’t ever get the chance to transform, or their habits from transforming still make them efficient starting pitchers.

We tend to see the evolution until the pitchers pans out or is no longer in the league. Trevor Bauer still has plus pitches but tons of command issues, and he is probably at the plateau of the hardest he can throw in his career as his velo will start decreasing. The determining factor is having movement on the fastball for soft contact, but also placing the ball well that doesn’t hang over the plate and cause major damage. Since Bauer doesn’t have great fastball spin rate, he was wise to start sinking his stuff more, although his next step will be to keep that sinker below the knees and preferably angled away to prevent hard pull barreling.

I think no matter how good the four seam is, not being able to locate is important. And there are many pitchers who have this issue, and either build command over time, or start to turnover/cut their pitches to create weak contact in lieu of commanding the counts throughout a game, sans relief/specialist work.