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Playing with fire: Erasmo Ramirez and his fastball(s)

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Erasmo Ramirez has made some notable changes to his pitch mix since rejoining the Mariners.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Throughout this past offseason, we saw the Mariners acquire pitchers with “rising” fastballs over and over again. Drew Smyly, Yovani Gallardo, Chase De Jong—these are prime examples of the type of pitcher Jerry Dipoto was targeting. The theory was that the outstanding vertical movement on their fastballs would make up for their lack of velocity. It’s true that a fastball with lots of backspin, properly located, will generate more swings and misses than a sinking fastball. But the unfortunate side effect has been a ridiculous number of home runs allowed by Mariner pitching.

Thirty percent of the home runs allowed by the Mariners have come off the four-seam fastball. That falls under what the league is allowing off four-seam fastballs (38%) but it’s still the largest chunk of the pie. Fastballs get hit for dingers, there’s no way around it. Over the last three years, the Mariners pitching staff has exponentially increased the number of fastballs they throw. In 2015, their pitchers threw a fastball around 37% of the time, a little bit above league average. This season, only the Rockies are throwing four-seam fastballs more often, and that’s largely due to their extreme home environment. The increased number of four-seam fastballs isn’t the sole reason for the Mariners pitching woes, but it’s certainly a factor.

Since rejoining the Mariners at the trade deadline, Erasmo Ramirez has started throwing his four-seam fastball much more often. During his first stint with the team from 2012-2014, he threw a pretty even mix of four-seam fastballs and sinkers. Last year, the Rays had him abandon his four-seamer in favor of his sinker while he was pitching out of the bullpen. That shift helped him increase his ground ball rate but it didn’t limit the damage done by home runs. In his five starts with the Mariners this year, Ramirez has used his four-seam fastball around 22% of the time, more than double the rate he was running in Tampa Bay the past two years.

Historically, Ramirez’s four-seamer has been a pretty decent pitch. His career whiff rate on the pitch is above average, though he’s allowed his fair share of home runs off the pitch. This season, he’s generating the second highest whiff rate of his career with that pitch and he’s limited the damage to just a single home run. On the other hand, his sinker is only good for one thing, inducing contact on the ground. That’s an important element to his repertoire but it limits his strikeout potential. Opposing batters have also knocked around his sinker, to the tune of a .319 BABIP and a .155 ISO during his career. It’s an interesting trade-off that Ramirez has to balance; more whiffs and the potential for more home runs or more contact on the ground without the strikeouts.

He’s added another wrinkle to his repertoire recently too, a cutter. Throughout his first spell with the Mariners, Ramirez struggled to hone a consistent breaking ball. He dabbled with a curveball and a slider but neither was effective. Late last year, he started throwing a cutter with the hope that it could replace all those missing whiffs off four-seamers. It didn’t really work out as he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career last year. But he doubled down on this strategy this year and it’s paid off. He threw his cutter and sinker about the same amount while with the Rays this season and his strikeout rate has bounced back. Now that he’s throwing his four-seamer more often with the Mariners, he added another weapon with a high whiff rate back into his repertoire.

One more note about Ramirez’s four-seamer; he’s increased the amount of “rise” he’s able to generate off the pitch the last two years.

He’s added around two inches of vertical movement to his four-seamer over his average a few years ago. And like I noted above, he’s generating more whiffs with the pitch as a result. Without overpowering velocity, home runs will always be a looming danger, especially if Ramirez can’t locate well. But with three different types of fastballs with different characteristics, he’s able mix and match his pitch types to fit the situation he’s pitching in. And I haven’t even mentioned his changeup which continues to be a good secondary pitch for him as well.

We’ve had a rough understanding of the Mariners pitching philosophy but now we’ve got a tangible example of the adjustments the Mariners expect their pitchers to make to fit that philosophy. Now that Erasmo Ramirez is throwing more of his “rising” fastball, he fits the archetypical pitcher Jerry Dipoto has sought after for the past year. It’s a risky strategy with the potential for lots of damage, as we’ve seen, but there is some upside if the execution is on point. For Ramirez, that upside could look like a slight bump in strikeout rate. Paired with his improved walk rate, the Mariners should have a valuable mid-rotation starter under team control through 2018.