Erasmo Ramirez came home to Seattle for his second stint with the Mariners at the beginning of August, providing a team sorely in need of pitching with a solid final two months of baseball. In 62 innings of work, Ramirez ran a 4.46 xFIP with a strong 7.84 K/9 and an impressive 2.18 BB/9. Those final two months capped a bounceback season for the 27-year-old right hander, who produced a -0.4 fWAR in 2016 with the Rays.
Ramirez’s career has been an interesting one. He made his MLB debut in 2012 at the young age of 21 years old and posted a 1.0 fWAR season as a rookie. He struggled to build off his strong first season, providing -0.5 fWAR in 147.2 IP over the next two seasons in Seattle. With Erasmo out of minor league options, the Mariners traded Ramirez to the Rays in exchange for Mike Montgomery days before the 2015 season began. Erasmo would go on to post a 2.3 WAR that season in 27 starts; however, the Rays converted Erasmo into a reliever the following season. A lot of that decision can be attributed to the depth of Tampa Bay’s rotation, which featured the likes of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore, Blake Snell, and Matt Andriese.
That said, you don’t up and convert a starter that posted a two-plus win season because there’s too much starter depth. There has to be something that suggests that he would be more valuable moving forward as a reliever. Here’s my theory...
Ramirez threw a four seamer, a sinker, a changeup, a curveball, and a slider to that point in his career. Other than his fastball and sinker, the only pitch that consistently had positive values (using weighted runs per 100 pitches) was his changeup. The Rays must have figured that he could rely strictly on his hard pitches and his changeup out of the pen given his reduced role. Although Ramirez offered the ability to pitch multiple innings out of the pen, he only faced a batter twice in a game nine times as a reliever in 2016. Tightening his arsenal allowed him to lean on his best pitches without having to worry about times through the order penalty.
That seems to be what happened. Erasmo threw his fastball, sinker, or changeup over 82% of the time in 2016. He almost scrapped his curveball entirely, throwing it just 11 times. His formula was to get grounders with the sinker and changeup while getting some strikeouts with the four seamer or changeup. The 52.5% ground-ball rate was easily the highest of his career. His changeup appeared to be enough of a weapon to be his out pitch when working out of the bullpen, which the Rays believed would be a fruitful move.
Using baseball card statistics, the move was in fact a success. Ramirez tallied over 90 innings of work, mostly as a reliever, and recorded a laudable 3.77 ERA; however, his 6.25 K/9 yielded a 4.38 xFIP and -0.4 fWAR.
Digging deeper into Ramirez’ 2016 though, you’ll find the birth of a new pitch, a pitch he has since leaned on to add more flavor to his arsenal: the cutter. Even when Ramirez cut his curveball out once moving to the pen, he would mix his slider in about 14% of the time as a reliever. This particular pitch wasn’t necessarily disastrous for him, earning a -0.76 runs per 100 pitches for his career, but it definitely wasn’t an uber-effective option. But on late July of 2016, Ramirez added his cutter to his arsenal, and threw it exactly as many times as his slider (10.78% of the time) for the rest of the season. The sample size for his cutter was too small to produce a weighted runs per 100 pitches score, but it generated more whiffs per swing than the slider and ran the exact same ground ball rate. Ramirez still leaned on both of his fastballs and his changeup nearly 80% of the time, but had a new, promising secondary offering to mix into his repertoire.
The Rays kept Ramirez in the bullpen to begin the 2017 season, but he saw much more frequent play as a starter over the early stages of the season. He saw a stretch of seven starts from May 19 to June 21. During that stretch a high BABIP plagued his success, but he saw his K/9 jump to 7.53, a sharp increase form his 6.25 K/9 from the season before. The Mariners acquired Ramirez just in time for the final two months, and he continued to strike people out at a rate above 7.50 per nine innings.
Although his cutter generated just a 21% whiff rate, the second lowest of all his offerings, his newest tool was an effective one. His cutter induced quite a few grounders and fly balls, over 35% of the time for both, and rarely yielded line drives; it had the lowest line drive rate of all his pitches. Most of the balls put in the air off the cutter stayed in the yard, as it ran a HR/FB of 6.5%, the lowest of any of his pitches he threw more than 10 times.
So while we can’t say the added cutter is the reason his K/9 is on the rise, you could argue the presence of another effective secondary offering positively impacted the success of other pitches. Whiff rates for the fastball, sinker, and slider (which he throws less frequently than the cutter but hasn’t scrapped entirely) all saw an uptick from their career averages. The cutter affords Ramirez a pitch he can throw for a strike and generate non-dangerous contact. He threw it over 30% of the time when batters were ahead, because he could throw it in the zone without worrying about it getting sent into orbit. The result of this weapon allowed Erasmo to increase his frequency of pitches in the zone by 2% while seeing his contact rate drop by 3%.
The pairing of the cutter and slider is particularly intruiging. The pitches essentially share the same release point.
That said, the cutter has a perceived rise that causes hitters to get under the baseball, leading to those harmless pop ups. Meanwhile, the slider has a sharper horizontal movement without the perceived rise. These pitches may appear similar out of the hand, but the difference in movement and speed keeps hitters off balance, resulting in the higher whiff rate for the slider.
As the Mariners stretched Ramirez back out permanantly into a starter, he’s been able to fully utilize a five-pitch arsenal that features a four seamer, a sinker, a changeup, a cutter, and a slider. Utilizing his diverse repertoire—showcasing pitches of different velocities and movement at different eye levels in different parts of the count—Ramirez has the tools necessary to be a productive starter for a long time. He’s out of options, so there’s no question that he’ll be in the rotation to start the season; however, I don’t doubt that he would have earned his spot either way. With a refined toolbag of pitches to choose from, Erasmo will build off of a bounceback 2017 and be a cog in the Mariners’ staff moving forward.