The Mariners aren’t exactly hurting for relief pitching. Aside from the Tampa Bay Rays — who probably shouldn’t qualify, what with their non-traditional usage of their relievers — the Mariners’ bullpen ranks first in fWAR and FIP. Despite trading Kendall Graveman, their most oft-used ninth inning reliever in the first half, they’ve arguably replaced him with a reliever of equal potency in Diego Castillo. I concede that the timing is strange after last night, but the most underrated member of the Mariners bullpen is probably Yohan Ramírez.
Last year, Ramírez concluded the season with the highest walk percentage in MLB, at 21.3%. As far as relievers go, walking hitters a fifth of the time is exceedingly fungible, and bordering unusable. Having said that, the article title tips off that I’m about to compare Ramírez to Paul Sewald. I’m a huge fan of Sewald. There may not be a bigger fan of Sewald outside of literally Paul Sewald. So you can imagine that saying Ramírez is, in any way, like Sewald is quite the endorsement. But it’s true! Compared to last year, Ramírez has made some changes that have refashioned him into more of a Sewaldian mold than ever before.
That means that we need to get acquainted with Sewald, with which I am happy to oblige. Nowadays, high-efficiency four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone are what’s en vogue. Due to the Magnus effect created by backspin, these fastballs are prevented from falling as much as they would otherwise and give the illusion that the ball is rising. As you can imagine, this makes it awfully hard on hitters to get their barrels on the ball. The thing is, Sewald doesn’t have a high-efficiency fastball, and neither does Ramírez.
Sewald went the opposite way of the league: he lost spin efficiency on his fastball, and yet his fastball has been better than ever. In June, I wrote about Sewald, and the focus was his fastball. At the time of writing, he had the highest fastball CSW in all of MLB, at 40.1%. While his fastball CSW has fallen to 35.3% on the year, it still ranks 11th in MLB. It’s all because he’s flattened the vertical approach angle (VAA) of his fastball.
VAA is heavily dictated by (but not limited to) three factors: release extension, release height, and vertical pitch location. Sewald addressed all of these by dropping his arm slot down a few inches, increasing his pitch extension by a few inches, and elevating his fastball more. But fastball characteristics matter as well! The added gyroscopic spin has given him a unique spin profile that is more typical of a pitcher who throws out of a much higher arm slot. As his fastball is on its way to the plate, his fastball tilts more vertically, preventing it from falling as it would from a more traditional arm slot.
Ramírez has followed his lead. He already had elite extension, but now he’s paired this with a lower arm slot to pair with his fastball, which also has a lot of gyro spin. The change in his arm slot has also altered the nature of his spin profile, and he looks awfully similar to Sewald:
Ramírez has created a movement profile that hitters would normally see from an arm slot around 1:45 on a clock face, except he’s throwing from about arm slot around 2:15 to 2:30. Throwing from this lowered slot has given hitters a much tougher look. Both Ramírez and Sewald feature movement profiles that are incongruent from their release points. Even after hitters get a few looks at them, it still gives them a ton of trouble.
Now, Ramírez has always struck out plenty of the hitters. It’s just that, until now, he’s walked far, far more hitters than is tenable. His fastball and slider have always been what make him special, and now they’re even better, but the other matter at hand is whether Ramírez’s command will push him to middle-relief, or whether he can throw the ball in the zone enough that he can make it work in higher leverage situations.
Ramírez’s new arm slot has helped him to fill up the zone more with his fastball, bringing his zone percentage from 49.2% in 2020 to 57% in 2021.
That’s resulted in more swings, both inside and out of the zone:
And yet more swings and misses as well:
Now that he’s pounding the zone more, it’s elevated his profile. Ramírez probably hasn’t outgrown his 30-grade command, but his control has been more than manageable. Here’s an example of that, from an at-bat against Ketel Marte.
Ramírez starts him out with a slider:
He releases the ball a touch early and leaves it up and arm-side, but out of the zone. This would be the first and only pitch to Marte thrown out of the zone.
He doubles down with another slider, this time for a called strike:
He mixes it up with a fastball:
He goes back to his slider for a foul ball:
And one more time, a slider, for a swing and miss:
Marte is one of the best left-handed hitters in MLB. He has a discerning eye, chasing less than the vast majority of hitters, but he pairs this with his exceptional ability to make contact with pitches in the zone. He managed to foul off a slider, but Ramírez came back with an identical pitch, and Marte swung through it. That speaks to Ramírez’s potential as a reliever when he can routinely throw pitches inside the zone.
There’s some downside to having better control than command. If Ramírez can maintain his newfound ability to throw strikes, then he’s got one thing left to figure out. From the other day, against Alex Verdugo:
Cal Raleigh flashes his glove at the top of the zone, and as Ramírez gets into his delivery, he drops down, anticipating a slider at the bottom of the zone, on the inner half. Ramírez doesn’t get it there, and leaves it up in the vertical-middle of the zone. Verdugo turns on it and sends it just over the fence in right field.
It seems like Ramírez has figured out how to get the ball in the zone. That should do plenty to make him more of a serviceable reliever than ever. He’s bound to miss his spots, and those mistakes will inevitably turn into doubles and home runs, but he’s never had a better slider, and his fastball has taken a step forward too. Perhaps the control woes return, but even without Paul Sewald’s command, Yohan Ramírez figures to flash the look of a closer more often than he did last year.