The Miami Marlins demoted closer Steve Cishek early on in the 2015 season to help preserve their late-inning leads and avoid dipping themselves into further disaster with blown saves. Part of the reason why they could afford to do that was that A.J. Ramos appeared at the early point of the year to be ready to take over a closer's responsibility given his impressive performances. He took on the job officially on May 24 and never looked back, posting fantastic first-half numbers.
Then the second half came around, and Marlins fans were back to questioning yet another closer.
On the surface, Ramos's season cannot be questioned. He had an unequivocal good year when the combined numbers are assessed. A 2.30 ERA is about on part with what he had been doing prior to this year, but the walk rates look significantly better than they ever did in the previous two seasons. Ramos cut his walk rate from 2014 by 41 percent, which is a patently absurd number for a guy who always used to struggle with control. Ramos's MO was much like Renyel Pinto's before him; he could strike you out like a fiend, but he walked a ton of men and depended a lot on avoiding home runs and hits on balls in play to deflate his ERA.
It seems like Ramos is still showing a preternatural way of avoiding hits on balls in play, as he allowed just a .252 BABIP this year. It is a possibility that Ramos is the rare man that can beat the general rule on balls in play, especially since many elite relievers tend to post below-average numbers on that mark. However, we are only three years into his career, so it is way too early to consider Ramos an "elite reliever" just yet.
This is especially true when you look at how Ramos's season split up.
In the first half, Ramos was probably one of the five most dominant relievers in baseball. Despite what grossly appears like middling stuff, his strikeout rate matched that of similar dominant closer-types and hard-throwing setup men, making him at home with these fireballers. However, the second half brought more of what Ramos had always shown. His control dipped as his walk rate nearly doubled. Hitters were chasing 37 percent of his out-of-zone pitches and making contact on just 39 percent of them in the first half. The contact numbers favored more of the hitters, and they took a few more pitches as well, when the second half rolled around. Ramos's 44 percent in-zone rate in the first half dipped to 40 percent in the second half, which is the lowest that it has dipped in his career.
Ramos's control definitely slipped in the second half, and it ate slightly into his strikeouts, but the biggest issue clearly was the home run. Prior to this season, Ramos had allowed just seven home runs in 153 1/3 innings. In 29 2/3 second-half innings, he gave up five blasts alone. It was reflected overall in Ramos's increased hard-hit ball rate as well, as he went from 17 percent of balls in play going for hard hit balls in the first half to 31 percent in the second half.
However, all things considered, that second half probably went more decently than expected, and the overall numbers still represent a significant improvement in Ramos's game. His strikeout-to-walk rate differential improved greatly; the 22 percent difference ranked 25th among 137 qualified relievers, next to guys like Roberto Osuna and Drew Storen. The home run thing was unfortunate, but the overall numbers still support an expected ERA of around 2.70 to 3.20 based on his batted ball data and peripherals. After correcting for the massive boom in home runs, the 2015 season still looks like the next step in the evolution of A.J. Ramos.
The Marlins would be wise to keep an eye on the trade market of closers to see if any team would be willing to bite on Ramos after a strong 2015 campaign. He is just the type of guy who might implode at any minute like Cishek did in 2015, but Ramos's season was just good enough that it shows promise for at least next year.