Confession time: I was not totally enthused by the selection of former Astros prospect Yohan Ramírez in the 2019 Rule 5 draft. I wanted the Mariners to take RHP Zack Brown out of Milwaukee, or St. Louis fireballer Connor Jones, or for fun, CLE OF Ka’ai Tom; Ramírez didn’t even make our lengthy list of Rule 5 targets for the Mariners.
This was, to be honest, less about Ramírez himself and more of a personal dislike about what the Astros pride in pitching prospects. In 2019, the Astros’ affiliate, the Corpus Christi Hooks, led the entire Texas League in strikeouts with 1453; Seattle’s Arkansas Travelers came in a distant second, with 1324. However, the Travs’ staff walked just 318 batters to 646 batters walked by the Hooks; the next worst team for walks, the Cardinals’ affiliate, barely scraped 500. The 2018 season is similar, although without the sparkling numbers put up by the Travs’ pitching staff; the Corpus Christi staff struck out 1369 batters, 150 more than the next-closest team, but walked over 500 batters, second-most in the league behind the Cardinals. The reason for this seems to be an organizational philosophy that prides big stuff and strikeouts over—or at the expense of—command, especially with Latin American prospects. The Astros have been very active in Latin America for years, often finding players who become big-league contributors (José Altuve, Framber Valdéz) in places their competition has overlooked, especially with pitching. However, that has also led to priding a lot of big arms with 70 raw stuff and 40 command—see Enoli Paredes, Carlos Sanabria, and our own Yohan Ramírez.
I never saw Paredes throw live, but I watched Sanabria live in the Arizona Fall League hit the backstop a bunch of times, and over MiLB TV in 2019 I watched Ramírez fail to command his stuff against the Travs’ patient, seasoned hitters. On the other hand, the Mariners’ minor leaguers didn’t always light up the radar gun, but easily out-pitched their competition nonetheless. So it was strange to hear Ramírez’s name called in the Rule 5 draft by the Mariners, with their emphasis on controlling the zone, their clearly-expressed predilection for high-floor, polished pitchers, and their willingness to take on lower-velocity but high-command projects. George Kirby, Devin Sweet, Ljay Newsome, Penn Murfee, Sam Delaplane...it was a puzzle to see how the fireballing but low-control Ramírez fit in with this group of prospects, especially as Ramírez was the only one guaranteed a full-time 25-man spot, lest he be returned to the Astros under the stipulations of the Rule 5 draft.
It’s impossible to say what Yohan Ramírez’s career trajectory would have been in Seattle if not for the pandemic. Selecting way back in early December, when rumors of the novel coronavirus were the faintest of whispers, it seems impossible that the Mariners—or any team—could have forecasted how low the threshold would have been for keeping Ramírez for good, a mere 60 games compared to the usual 160+. In a year that was bad in so many other ways, it was a good year for the Mariners to gamble on the high-ceiling poor-control Ramírez, as opposed to the two “safer” picks who sandwich him in fellow relievers Brandon Brennan and Will Vest. But now that he is safely a Mariner, can Ramírez stay one?
If one were to go off his Statcast numbers alone, the answer would probably be an enthusiastic yes:
But these numbers are only part of the story. The most important question for a reliever is whether or not they can make outs, and plus fastball velocity or spin or whiffs doesn’t necessarily correlate to positive results on the field, even though bright-red metrics are nice. And this is where Ramírez’s walk numbers really eat at him; he was the worst among all relievers last year in walk percentage, at a ghastly 21.3%. A strong-but-not-elite 27.7% K rate just isn’t enough to offset that kind of poor control, not without another plus ability like a preternatural ability to get ground balls (no, or at least not in this small MLB sample size, although career numbers suggest average-to-better ability in that area). And because of both the shortened 2020 season and relievers’ limited sample size, plus a lack of track history in the majors, it’s impossible to look at what Ramírez did over the season and see any visible improvement. It seems like an improvement that Ramírez walked only six batters in September vs. 11 in August until you consider that Ramírez pitched about three fewer innings in September, as the team started utilizing him as a single-inning reliever only.
Sometimes analyzing pitching is very complex, looking at tunneling and pitch repertoires and the like, and sometimes it boils down to my dad’s pitching advice, which is throw some damn strikes. Ramírez is in the zone less than 44% of the time, significantly lower than the MLB average of 48.4%. But when he’s in the zone, batters swing and whiff at his stuff more frequently than they do at the average pitcher’s. And if he can get to the slider, it is an excellent putaway pitch, eliciting either weak contact (.075 xSLG) or a whiff 43% of the time. But this requires Ramírez to be in or around the strike zone, and not sail pitches towards the backstop like his Corpus Christi brethren. 2020 was a mulligan of a year, and the Mariners afforded Ramírez plenty of run out of the bullpen to get a taste of being a big-league high-leverage reliever. In 2021, the Mariners won’t be under the same mandate to give Ramírez big-league innings, and he’ll (likely) have to earn his keep in a newly-revamped (?) Seattle bullpen or risk being sent to Tacoma. Take it from my dad and throw some damn strikes, Yohan.