One of the more frustrating pitchers in the bullpen was Edubray Ramos. He has tantalizing stuff, but for the first part of the season, he just couldn’t put it all together to become that effective reliever many in the organization saw. When he was demoted following a rough April through June, there seemed to be little hope that he’d be a long term part of the bullpen. Then, he reappears in August and outside of a hideous outing against San Francisco (0.2 IP, 5 R), he was good. Like, really good.
So, what happened?
First, let’s compare just how bad he was prior to demotion and how good he was after. Here were his numbers for those splits:
A Tale of Two Halves
Pretty much all the batted ball stuff stays the same. The BABIP doesn’t drop enough to make that much a dent in his ERA, so we can’t chalk up his first “half” to bad luck, but my oh my, that control. That’s what jumps out right away. It’s like all of a sudden, Ramos went to the minor leagues and learned where to throw the ball to get men out. He basically stopped walking people and upped his strikeout rate to elite levels.
If you look at where he was putting the ball in the strike zone, there is hardly a difference at all. Comparing these two pictures, the percentages and color coding in each zone are more or less the same.
If you wanted to nitpick, you can argue that he left fewer pitches up in the upper left quadrant (looking from the catcher’s POV), but you can see that he mostly worked in the lower right quadrant most of his time on the mound.
How about his pitch selection? Well, here is where we can start to formulate a hypothesis as to how good he began to be. You can start by throwing out two pitches essentially. Of the 932 pitches Brooks Baseball recorded Ramos throwing, only 13 were classified as either a curveball or a changeup, so for our purposes, we’re going to eliminate them from discussion. Let’s focus on his fastball and slider. Here is a chart that shows his progression of usage of each pitch throughout the season:
There is a steady drop in fastball usage and a steady uptick in slider usage. Usually, when a pitcher does this, it is because one pitch has become much more effective at getting hitters out than the others in his repertoire. This is backed up by the data we have available. As the season went on, Ramos was getting more swings and misses from his slider, seeing an especially big jump once he returned from the minors.
Of course, once the league adjusted to him again in September, the levels went back down near where they were before, but the point is something happened once he returned from the minor leagues with his slider that made him a much better pitcher with his slider. Was it a new grip? A new emphasis on location? The answer might also backed up by the data.
According to Fangraphs, Ramos’ slider was the third best slider in the game among 155 qualified relievers last season. It was a better pitch, by weighted means, than some of the more elite arms in baseball, names like Greg Holland, Dellin Betances, and....oh wait, who’s that? Ah yes, our old friend, Ken Giles. Now, it was essential that the pitch be better than others because by that same measure, his fastball was, get this, the second worst among those same qualified relievers. But, we can conclude that something was good about this pitch. What was it? This is where I think we can see just what changed when Ramos returned from the minors.
This chart shows the break on his pitches, specifically the vertical break:
Instead of looking at those wonderful color-coded bars, focus on the numbers. Look the difference between the break on his slider in April through June as compared to August. There is an inch difference in how much that pitch breaks downward, meaning it’s a tighter, more subtle break than it was before. This might lead one to believe that if Ramos were throwing that pitch in better spots within the zone, batters would be less effective on a pitch with less break since it looks more like a fastball coming in, not realizing until it’s too late that it’s a) not a fastball, therefore b) swinging and missing more often. Indeed, Ramos did receive more whiffs per swing with his slider on pitches just outside of the zone (specfically down) from August to September than he did from April to June.
Of course, playing devil’s advocate, one could argue that while they may have swung more often at the pitch upon his return, they did adjust back to their old habits against him, as seen in this chart. This is true, but whatever effectiveness Ramos had discovered with whatever change he made to his slider carried over into September, where he was just as good numbers-wise as he was in August.
So, to boil it down to its most basic form, it looks like once Ramos came back from working on something in Lehigh Valley, whatever that might be, it worked. The issue is that the league adjusted a little bit by whiffing less, but the results on those swings they did have were still very good. The hope is that whatever change Ramos made during his stint in the minors can carry over into the next season. The coaching staff that manager Gabe Kapler has put into place would be wise to study the changes Ramos made, helping him carry over his progress made. If he does, it adds another upper echelon arm to a bullpen that is suddenly looking mighty strong.