Especially since we do not have much else to look at, often we forget how little spring training statistics can mean. Just look back at last year–Aaron Hicks of the Minnesota Twins and Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox both put up tremendous numbers, but their regular season time was a disaster. The reason is simple: it is a small sample size and pitchers are working on particular pitches as much as they are working on getting hitters out, which often skews hitters’ numbers up and pitchers’ numbers down. That being said, Cesar Ramos has been extremely impressive for the Rays this spring. He has managed a 2.63 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched, striking out 11 while walking just 1. Ramos hasn’t suddenly blossomed into an ace starter, but could those stats indicate a smaller but still notable improvement?
You need to look no further than the stats themselves to start negating the magnitude of Ramos’ performance. Ramos is pitching out of his mind, yet he still has managed just a 7.2 K/9. Ramos always struggled missing bats when he was a starting pitcher, managing just a 5.6 K/9 in his minor league career (where he started 129 of 174 games), and never topping his 6.8 K/9 from his first pro season in 2005. When the Rays tried converting Ramos to a starting pitcher at Triple-A Durham in 2012, his K/9 in his 7 starts was just 6.1. There has not been a single season of Ramos’ career that suggests he could miss bats as a starting pitcher, and this spring training has not assuaged those concerns.
But at the end of the day, Ramos almost surely will not be the Rays’ fifth starter. Putting Ramos in the rotation literally does nothing for the Rays–Jake Odorizzi has more upside, and Erik Bedard will opt out if he does not make the team. Instead, he will likely return to the bullpen–and that is where his spring performance could help him. This spring, we have seen Ramos do something he has done little of his entire career: pitch under pressure. For his career, Ramos’ average leverage index (aLI) has been just .53 (47% below average). In 2013, he was at just .43 (57% below average). Suddenly this spring, he found himself in a high-pressure competition for the fifth starter job, and he has stayed composed. He is gaining Joe Maddon’s trust this spring, and that could change how he is used this season.
Last year, Ramos was the Rays’ long reliever, and he is expected to fill that role again this season. While it will be nice to have Ramos saving the rest of the bullpen in blowouts, though, we could see Ramos appear in bigger situations as well. The out-of-options Josh Lueke is also expected to be on the roster, and while Lueke does not have Ramos’ background as a starting pitcher, 26 of his 59 appearances in 2013 between the minors and majors spanned more than an inning. Especially given the disparity in their major league numbers–Ramos has a 4.01 ERA while Lueke is at 6.44–Lueke could find himself pitching in more long relief spots to begin the year while Ramos becomes a more likely option in close games. If he retains his composure from spring training, Ramos has an opportunity to be not just a long reliever, but the second lefty in the Rays’ bullpen behind Jake McGee.
Ramos had a reverse split in 2013, but he has rectified that this spring, holding lefties to a .222 average and a 5-0 strikeout to walk ratio. Yes, those statistics do not mean much, but there was never a good reason why Ramos could not get same-side batters out with his solid four-pitch arsenal, and the Rays have an excuse to give him another chance. Maybe Ramos fails facing lefties in relatively big spots and returns to his low-leverage role from 2013. If nothing else, though, this spring reminds us that Ramos deserves a chance. From the onset, Ramos was an outside candidate to win the fifth starter job, but he rose to the occasion and delivered a great showing. It is worth finding out whether that same logic could apply to Ramos pitching in higher-pressure situations.
Cesar Ramos’ excellent showing this spring training can be questioned in a multiplicity of different ways. He did not start throwing a new pitch or alter his delivery, giving us no reason to think he can be a starting pitcher now when he could not be before. However, performing well is never a bad thing, and suddenly Ramos enters the 2014 season with confidence. A slightly bigger bullpen role is much less impressive than a starting spot, but Ramos did make a statement this spring, and the Rays will give him the opportunity to extend that statement into the regular season.