The Other Weapon In the Marlins Bullpen

Yesterday I wrote about Carter Capps, who last year was on his way to an almost impossible season before elbow trouble sent him off. The idea was to remind you of just what Capps was able to do over 30-odd innings, and in support of that, I noted that Capps had baseball’s most unhittable pitch if you set the minimum to 100 of a given pitch type thrown. That’s important — Capps’ slider is one of the very best sliders, on account of what he can do with his fastball.

But, we talked about how minimums are arbitrary. You can set them wherever you want, and, you know, 100 pitches is plenty, but you could look for more. For fun, why don’t we double the minimum? Here are the most unhittable pitches last year, for pitches thrown at least 200 times:

  1. A.J. Ramos changeup, 34.8% swinging strikes
  2. Will Smith slider, 29.5%
  3. Carlos Carrasco curveball, 28.3%

At the 100-pitch minimum, Capps had a lead of about six percentage points over Ramos. At the 200-pitch minimum, Ramos had a lead of more than five percentage points over Smith. Ramos isn’t a freak in the way that Capps is a freak, but you could just as easily argue Ramos is more impressive since he doesn’t do anything to challenge the rules. A.J. Ramos just pitches, pretty quietly, and pretty quietly, he’s thrown a changeup as good as almost anyone else’s.

Ramos first appeared in the majors in 2012. He was drafted in the 21st round in 2009, and he was a successful minor-league closer. In his debut, he struck out the side on 13 pitches, and he always had a changeup that was difficult to hit. As a matter of fact, take a look at the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. There are 304 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 changeups during the whole of the PITCHf/x era. Ramos’ changeup stands as the leader in whiffs per swing, at 55%. In other words, batters have touched the baseball less than half the time they’ve attempted. Ramos just edges out Ryan Madson.

Yet a problem for Ramos used to be control. He was hard to hit, but easy to wait on, so his walks were inflated. This is why few people knew who he was before this past season — he was just another interesting but inconsistent reliever on a low-profile ballclub. Ramos needed to take a step forward, and that’s just what he did. Ramos found greater consistency, which came with fewer walks and greater trust. He started closing when Steve Cishek stopped, and for a good idea of how Ramos’ location got better, look at how his changeups have moved around. The images are from Baseball Savant.


The drop this past season should be obvious. Most pitchers want their changeups down and near to the plate, and that’s what Ramos pulled off. Again, Ramos’ changeup was always hard to hit, even when it was more elevated. But last year, compared to the year before, Ramos’ average changeup was lower by almost eight inches. With better changeup location, Ramos drew more swings, which meant an increased rate of swinging strikes. The pitch got better, and Ramos got better.

One of the key things for Ramos’ changeup is the movement, relative to that of his four-seam fastball. The changeup has almost eight inches more sink, which is atypically high as pitchers with four-seam fastballs go. This is what the thing looks like in flight, if you view it from an off-center angle. I don’t recommend viewing pitches from off-center angles, but you have to take what you’re given sometimes.

As tends to be the case, Ramos’ changeup improvement was reflected by a hike in usage. Ramos is a right-handed reliever, and he didn’t actually use the changeup more against lefties — he was already throwing it three-eighths of the time, which is an awful lot. But in both 2013 and 2014, Ramos threw nine changeups to righties. Last season, he threw 65. He trusted the changeup as a weapon against anyone, and that’s one of the true marks of faith in a pitch. Ramos in his career has struck out a dozen righties on changeups, and each of them happened in 2015.

There’s more that makes Ramos interesting. He also throws a slider, and last year he actually had three different pitches he threw at least a fifth of the time. Since 2002, there have been 1,832 reliever seasons of at least 50 innings, and barely 4% of them have had a reliever with so prominent a three-pitch arsenal. In this way Ramos looks something like Huston Street. It’s also worth noting Ramos has a career 2.62 ERA, with a 3.80 xFIP. He’s limited good contact and stranded runners, and there could be something to that as well. Ramos is an unusual reliever, and he’s been unusually effective. Even if he ends up getting too expensive for the Marlins, he shouldn’t be too expensive for other teams.

Ramos’ is a name worth knowing. In large part because Ramos’ is a changeup worth knowing. It doesn’t tell the whole A.J. Ramos story, but ever so quietly, that pitch has been one of the most difficult to hit in the entire game. That was true even before last year, when Ramos started to figure out how to put pitches where he wanted to more consistently. Now we have an objective swinging-strike leaderboard where Ramos is topped only by a teammate who uses a mechanical hiccup to make his pitches look like Aroldis Chapman’s. I don’t know if I buy the Marlins as contenders. I would need to be convinced, because I’m naturally skeptical. I certainly do buy the Marlins as interesting. I don’t know how deep the roster is going to be in terms of value, but it’s already plenty deep in fascinating individual skills.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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