A couple of weeks ago, the Rays sent lefty reliever Cesar Ramos down to the minor leagues. The move was perplexing because Ramos had pitched so well. In 12 major league appearances and 24.2 IP, Ramos posted a 1.46 ERA. He struck out 8.4 batters per 9 innings while walking 3.3 and allowed just 0.4 home runs, good for a 3.20 FIP. He has even managed a 56.3% groundball rate. In his last major league appearance before his demotion, Ramos tossed 4 shutout innings, striking out 6 while walking none. Why in the world were the Rays sending a pitcher who has been untouchable this season down to the minor leagues? But then suddenly it all made sense. It became apparent that the Rays were stretching Ramos out to be a starting pitcher. Does Ramos have the ability to succeed in that role?
The craziest part about this whole situation is how bad Ramos was in 2011 while spending nearly the entire season with the Rays. He managed just a 3.92 ERA in 59 appearances as a lefty specialist, managing just a 6.4 K/9, a 5.2 BB/9 (3.5 unintentional walks per 9 innings), and a 0.8 HR/9 in 43.2 innings pitched. And in a bigger sample size at Triple-A this season, Ramos has posted a 2.61 ERA in 18 relief appearances and 3 starts, but he has posted just a 6.5 K/9, a 2.2 BB/9, and 1.1 HR/9, good for a pedestrian 4.05 FIP, in 41.1 IP. Is Ramos’ incredible performance in the majors this season simply a fluke? Has anything really changed for Ramos between 2011 and 2012? Let’s compare Ramos’ Pitch F/X data from 2011 and 2012 and attempt to answer that question. The data is courtesy of Brooks Baseball while the graph is my own.
The two graphs here look awfully similar, but the big difference here is how often Ramos used each pitch. The biggest difference for Ramos was that he used his “sinker” (as characterized by Pitch F/X) 37% of the time in 2012 compared to just 13% in 2011. Considering it combines solid low-90′s velocity with great horizontal movement away from left-handed batters, that seems to be a fine idea. Overall, Ramos used his “fastball” and “sinker” 67% of the time in 2012 compared to 56% of the time in 2011. Since Ramos has been able to do that, hitters have to always be thinking fastball first and foremost, making his breaking pitches more effective at keeping hitters off balance. Here’s the problem: Ramos’ fastball and sinker are supposed to be the same pitch. A real sinker is a two-seam fastball. Typically, pitchers take at least 1-2 MPH off their four-seam fastball for their two-seam and in turn get more movement on the pitch. Looking at the key, Ramos’ fastball and sinker are thrown at nearly the exact same velocity. The fluctuations in their movement have to do with the fact that Ramos has not been able to get a consistent release point on the pitch. Looking at the upper endpoint, where all the lines depicting the pitches start towards the top of the graph, we see that the pitches start all over the place. Ramos’ fastball has morphed into his sinker when he has gotten a better downward angle on it. The issue is that he can’t always control when that happens. For all of Ramos’ pitches, his release points have been all over the place, allowing hitters to potentially pick up which pitch is coming. The good news is that for middle relievers, hitters won’t get to see their pitches enough to pick up if any pitch is being tipped. For starters, that is not the case. But the bigger issue for Ramos is how an inconsistent release point can lead to struggles with command and control.
Why has Cesar Ramos been so successful in 2012? He has gotten lucky with his release points. He has managed to keep hitters off-balance by unintentionally mixing the two versions of his fastball at nearly a 1 to 1 ratio. But his breaking pitches remain works in progress as he has been unable to get a consistent release point on them. His changeup has fallen off a cliff because it looks much more like his “sinker” than his “fastball.” Nevertheless, Ramos may be able to survive and even thrive as a middle reliever with his array of pitches. His two fastballs complement each other quite well and the rest of his pitches are good enough in short stints to force groundballs and keep hitters from sitting fastball. But if Ramos is transitioned into a starting role, big league hitters will expose his lack of command and he will get hit hard. Cesar Ramos has a future as a lefty reliever in the major leagues. But the inconsistent release points he has on his pitches will doom him long-term if he is used as a starting pitcher.