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Who is Erasmo Ramirez?

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A PITCHf/x scouting report.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Tampa Bay Rays traded former Royals first round draft choice and top prospect Mike Montgomery for Erasmo Ramirez, an up-and-down starter from Seattle who will presumably slot into the Rays injury-laden rotation.

Most of the luster had come off Montgomery by now, so this is something of a low-stakes swap. The Rays gave up a pitcher with a strikeout rate well under 20% in four seasons at triple-A, and got a major leaguer with a 4.62 ERA and 4.66 FIP over parts of three major league seasons.

Let's put the numbers aside for a second, though (we'll come back to them), and just look at some pictures.

This is a great representation of his pitches, but don't lean too heavily on the two-seam/four-seam pitch categorizations in this graph, we'll use Brooks Baseball's nuanced categories for that (and most everything else).

The velocities for Ramirez are:

Pitch MPH
Four-seam fastball 92.8
Sinker 92.4
Changeup 80.9
Slider 85.9
Curve 79.0

Here's what I see:

  • There's not much going on with the regular-old four-seam fastball. It has average major-league velocity and its movement is totally pedestrian, with below-average rise and run. For that reason, I wouldn't expect Ramirez to come in and immediately start throwing heat up in the zone like so many other Rays pitchers. He just doesn't have the right stuff for that. The value in Ramirez's fastball comes merely from its existence. It sets up his other pitches.

  • The sinker (two-seam fastball) is more interesting. It's just as hard as his four-seam, but as you can see in the plot (although many of the pitches are hidden under purple changeups), Ramirez is capable of giving it radically different movement. Sometimes, Ramirez's sinker even achieves negative vertical movement (meaning that it drops more than would a pitch without spin). Pitches like thistrue sinkersare usually ground-ball machines, although there are ways to turn them into strikeout weapons as well, which I'll talk about later on. For clues about how the Rays will ask Ramirez to use this pitch, think back to how they tweaked Roberto Hernandez's approach.

  • The changeup is where it's really at for Erasmo Ramirez. His fastball may not be blazing, but it's over 10 mph faster than his changeup. And what's more, this isn't a changeup that just sits there and relies on the speed differential to fool a hitter. It dives off the table in dramatic fashion. The horizontal run doesn't wow, but that's the only thing preventing me from calling it one of the best changeups in the game (on paper). If he can command it and use it intelligently, Ramirez's changeup is a deadly pitch that has the potential to befuddle both righties and lefties.

  • On the other hand, Ramirez's slider is the type of pitch that really shouldn't be thrown that often. There's very little vertical break to it, and the horizontal movement is below average as well. At 86 mph, it's a little bit on the harder side of sliders, which helps, but it's not what you would call a "hard slider." This is a pitch that can succeed when the batter is looking for something moving the other way, but it shouldn't be overexposed.

  • Ramirez's curve is very similar to his slider: average horizontal movement, poor vertical movement (it doesn't drop as much as most curves), and slightly above average velocity. About the nicest thing that can be said about it is that its existence helps with the game theory.
That all sounds pretty great, right? Major league starter, average velocity, five pitches, two of them good? Well, if that was all there was to it, the Rays would be sending west more than Mike Montgomery.

Ramirez broke into the majors as a 23-year old in 2012 and immediately found success, striking out 20.2% of the batters he faced while walking only 5% over 59 innings. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all below four in that season.

In parts of two seasons since then, he's been at or over five in each of those stats. And strangely for a player with a legitimate sinker, Ramirez hasn't burned a ton of worms, with a mere 40.2% groundball rate in his career.
That means that Ramirez is a project.

There are tools here for pitching coach Jim Hickey to work with, but they're not yet translating into quality major league production. So let's take a look at how Ramirez currently pitches, and how the Rays may attempt to help him translate those tools into results.

Photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Four-Seam

Over the course of his short career, Ramirez has thrown his four-seam 27% of the time against lefties, and 32% of the time against righties. He throws it pretty evenly in all counts against the opposite handed lefties, but against righties, he's more apt to use it early in the count and when behind, and then to go to other pitches once he has two strikes on a batter.

Against righties:
This is pretty standard usage. Up and in buys whiffs, down and away buys soft contact. Right down the middle with a pedestrian fastball is a good way to buy hard contact. Jim Hickey will tell him: "Groove it less often."

Against lefties:
This location makes a little bit less sense, but it does explain some of Ramirez's lack of groundball tendencies.

A four-seam up in the zone is a flyball pitch, and sure enough, a full 40% of the four-seamers put in play by lefties against Ramirez have been fly balls (with another 20% being called line drives), making it his least-groundball-y pitch.

He might want to change this usage a bit, but there's a balancing act to be played here.

Both the sinker and the changeup will be most-often located down, so his fastball needs to change the hitter's eye level to set them up. Additionally, Ramirez has actually gotten a decent number of whiffs with his fastball, so I'm not sure it needs to be changed radically. Really, I think this tweak will be all about intentionality—there are times that the fastball up is the correct pitch, but Ramirez will need to identify what those times are, and when the fastball up isn't right, do something else.

The Sinker

Historically, Ramirez has used his sinker 29% of the time against lefties and 22% of the time against righties. The pattern is the opposite of his four-seam usage, in that he throws it in all counts against the same-handed righties, but much prefers it when behind against opposite handed lefties. Take a look.

Against righties:
This is fairly normal usage for a sinker. Ramirez likes to bust it in on the hands of a righty, taking advantage of the movement in toward the batter.

He might produce more ground balls if he were to locate it down a little bit more, but I'm not sure the Rays will change much about his approach.

Against lefties:

Here's an area where I do think the Rays will make a change.

Recall how I said Ramirez throws this pitch when behind in the count, and largely abandons it when ahe? That's a common practice for pitchers who depend on a sinker, and locate it on the outside edge of the plate. In this location, it's movement takes it toward the end of the bat and tends to produce weak contact and ground balls, but it doesn't often result in a whiff.

The last time the Rays had a starter with a legitimate sinker was Roberto Hernandez, and they taught him a new trick. They had him locate his sinker on the inside edge of the plate to lefties, where it's horizontal run would take it back into the zone for strike calls, and where it's vertical drop moved at a right angle to the swing plane, leading to whiffs.

Ramirez's sinker has produced a whiff on only 10% of all swings, which is a pretty paltry number. I believe the Rays will move its location inside and try to turn it into an out pitch, rather than just a way to buy a strike.

The Changeup

Ramirez's best pitch is the location of the most obvious change for fans familiar with the "Rays Way" of pitching. He throws it 29% of the time against lefties, but most often when he's ahead in the count. He only throws it 9% of the time against righties. Expect Ramirez to increase that usage percentage against same-handed hitters.

The Rays believe that the changeup, particularly a high-quality one like Ramirez's, can and should be thrown to both same-handed and opposite-handed batters, and can be thrown in any count. This makes its usage less predictable, and makes both it and the pitcher's other pitches play up.

Against righties:
Against lefties:
The other side of the equation for Rays changeups is their location.

Ramirez locates his changeup down and to the outer edge of the plate against both right- and left-handed hitters. But the Rays believe that in addition to being thrown in all counts, the changeup should be thrown to either side of the plate. Ramirez's offering is good enough to support that.

To date in the major leagues, Ramirez has never thrown a changeup above the knees on the inner edge of the plate. That will change.

Conclusion

The last, but probably most important component here is command. The best movement, and the best plan all amount to nothing if a pitcher can't locate the ball where he wants to. Recently, Ramirez has had trouble with the walk at the major league level (10.1% last year), but he only walked 3.6%(!) of the batters he faced in triple-A.

If he can command his pitches, Ramirez won't be just a stopgap. He has the stuff to be a good back-of-the-rotation starter, who could even work his way into the middle of a rotation. His arrival immediately puts Nathan Karns and Alex Colome—two pitchers who some think are destined for the bullpen—on notice that they're fighting for their rotation lives. If he can't command his pitches, then he'll be the first man moved to the bullpen (where he can focus more on the better three of his five pitches) as the Rays rotation gets healthy.

If Mike Montgomery were the answer, he'd break camp with the major league team. Instead, he was shipped off for someone the Rays believe is better able to support their talented-but-ailing pitching staff.

He may flop, but as projects go, I agree with the Rays. Erasmo Ramirez is a good bet.