On Monday, Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher Erasmo Ramirez entered the 8th inning with a no-hitter intact. In this game, he struck out six, walked two, and generated a surprisingly low six ground balls. To the disappointment of baseball at large, however, he allowed one hit. Specifically, a hard ground ball by Carlos Beltran, bouncing in and out of the glove of Richie Shaffer.
In the end, he went a strong seven and two-thirds innings and earned a GameScore of 81, a number tied for the best start of his career. It is the kind of start that would have been hard to imagine out of him at the beginning of this season.
Five and a third innings into the 2015 season, Ramirez had an ERA of 25.31. Despite six strikeouts, he managed to walk six batters, hit another, allow 15(!) hits (three for extra bases), and somehow threw 141 pitches.
For Ramirez, it was the continuation of a miserable 2014 campaign with the Mariners and an off-season which saw him traded to the Rays for Mike Montgomery. Those initial two outings have weighed heavily on the remainder of his season. Just for the sake of comparison, his season ERA drops from 3.75 in 144.0 total innings to 2.92 in the 138.2 innings following the initial blowouts.
On the whole, however, Erasmo Ramirez has taken the steps forward necessary to emerge as a viable average starting pitcher in the major leagues. Following two seasons in which he struggled mightily by failing to strike out batters, generate ground balls, and limit home runs, Ramirez has put it together in 2015.
His new 19.2 percent strikeout rate now hovers about league average, while his 6.6 percent walk rate is a large drop from the past two seasons and is better than league average. The same can be said for his 47.4 percent ground ball rate.
Despite a roughly average strikeout rate, Ramirez actually excels with an 11.5 percent whiff rate, a number above league average (data per Fangraphs).
|League - 2015||31.0%||66.5%||66.8%||87.7%||9.2%|
Batters are making contact on outside pitches at a rate 5.5 percent lower than league average. A lot success has to do with the pitch that got him to the majors - his stellar changeup, seen here striking out eight New York Mets during a July 2014 start.
It is an interesting pitch on several fronts. First, Ramirez owns one of the ten slowest changeups in baseball (minimum 130 innings) and is among the top dozen by changeup usage rate. Based on its current 59.3 percent ground-ball and 25.9 percent whiff rates, as well as his ability to throw it anywhere he wants in the bottom half of the strike zone, one could go so far as to call it an elite pitch (data per Fangraphs).
This season, Ramirez has been using the pitch more against same-handed batters in lieu of his curveball to great effect. The pitch's ground-ball rate is currently almost 10 percent higher than its career rate. However, save for a slight increase in chase percentage (42.3 percent in 2015 versus 40.7 percent career), the movement and velocity of the pitch have not changed much. The same could be said about his four-seam fastball, which is a roughly average offering.
The remainder of Ramirez's pitches are homer-prone and have been the ones causing problems in the past - his sinker, slider, and curveball. The sinker is being thrown for strikes more frequently - up to 69.2 percent over his career 65.1 percent rate. With outside-zone and in-zone contact rates each over 95 percent, batters are almost never missing the pitch. Its whiff rate is almost non-existent at 1.7 percent, but its chase (26.7 percent) and ground-ball (58.8 percent) rates indicate that much of the contact is weak.
Erasmo Ramirez's breaking pitches don't look like strong offerings on face value, and they aren't great - the lack of a consistent breaking pitch is one of the things that currently limits him to being an average starter.
There may not be an uglier indicator of their quality than their home run per fly ball rates, both over 25 percent on the season and both over 20 percent for his career (per Fangraphs). Despite high swinging strike rates, the pitches are not consistent, and Ramirez has a tendency to throw them over the plate. His breaking ball zone profile for slugging percentage looks predictably plate-focused.
However, Ramirez has taken steps to improve, or at least mitigate the damage of, each of these pitches. Brooks Baseball reports that the curveball is being used less than half as much as in 2014 (down to 4.5 percent usage) and has almost been removed completely against right-handed batters. The slider is seeing more usage in those cases as his third pitch.
Both pitches do at least have interesting features. They've each always gotten a large number of swinging strikes, and in 2015 those rates are higher. There is also a noticeable jump in ground balls for both pitches. Below is a table of Fangraphs data summarizing the difference between Erasmo Ramirez's 2015 rates and his career rates.
Ramirez is throwing these pitches for fewer strikes in 2015, which is likely a positive, intentional trend. Batters have always whiffed on these pitches outside the zone, and the less often he leaves them hanging, the better.
But what about having higher HR/FB rates? As one might guess, by generating significantly more ground balls, he's also allowing fewer fly balls, and that metric has a smaller denominator (fewer home runs have more of an impact). He is still allowing his fair share of dingers on the slider (.301 ISO allowed per Brooks Baseball). However, by standard whiff and ground-ball rate benchmarks, the slider actually grades out very well this season (16.8 percent whiffs, 46.5 percent ground balls, and even 0.8 inches greater average horizontal movement). The curveball, by the same measures, grades out as a roughly average pitch.
These peripherals obviously still do not match the results, and in context they ignore glaring problems that prevent the pitches from reaching those evaluations. When he executes his pitch, Ramirez is great, but he is still getting too many breaking balls crushed over the plate.
Consistency is something that pitchers can improve with experience, and despite having four years of major league exposure, Erasmo Ramirez is still only 24 years old. There are some positive indications that he is gaining more consistency with those problematic pitches, and the results are slowly coming.
If he can build on his 2015 progress, there may even be a bit more ceiling in his outlook, and outings like Monday may come as less of a surprise.
As is, he demonstrates an elite changeup that effectively gets batters out from both sides of the plate, features two average or better fastballs, and has made enough improvements on the breaking balls to compensate for the current lack of consistency. Ramirez has shown enough to be penciled in as a rotation piece for the Rays' 2016 season.
. . .
Spencer Bingol is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.