A.J. Ramos collected his first save of his career yesterday as the Miami Marlins pulled out a 5-2 victory and picked up a series win over the Baltimore Orioles. Ramos inherited the job from the struggling Steve Cishek, but he earned the role after pitching well opposite Cishek. Ramos thus far has a 0.78 ERA and 1.76 FIP, and hitters have yet to record a home run on him. The numbers are impressive and a step up from last season, when he posted good peripherals and an overperforming ERA.
Ramos has been the best pitcher on the Marlins thus far in 2015, starter or reliever. Has he done anything differently thus far this season?
The most obvious thing that you note from Ramos is that his walk rate is drastically decreased, down to just 8.2 percent after a 15.9 percent mark last year. Ramos is a great pitcher without his extreme walk rates, and the drop in rate has made him look fantastic.
How is he managing this about-face in control? It is hard to say that there is a significant, highly-repeatable difference in the plate discipline numbers, but they clearly show where Ramos has had success this year.
The pitches are in the strike zone at more or less the same rate as last season, when he walked a career-high rate. Batters are swinging at Ramos's offerings at about the same rates in and out of the zone. The difference is in the contact rates, particularly out of the strike zone. That huge dip in contact rate almost entirely explains the change in balls and strikes, Perhaps rather than fouling off pitches to extend plate appearances or putting the ball in play, batters are missing those would-be balls and not giving themselves a lot of time to get walks off of the erratic Ramos.
A good number of those extra swings are coming against the changeup. Last year, Ramos threw 43 percent of his changeups for balls against left-handed hitters. This year thus far, that rate is down to 33 percent, and it has been almost entirely replaced with swings. Lefties are offering at the changeup an astonishing 63 percent of the time, up from 50 percent last year. The balls-to-called strike ratio is still awful, but the change is getting more pitches swung at and missed than before.
The slider, on the other hand, has been better placed. Rigthies have seen only 27 percent of sliders go for balls versus 39 percent last season. Ramos has placed the slider for called strikes at better ratios than even his fastball this season!
The swings and misses have increased out of the zone, and they are coming mostly off of Ramos's two seemingly dominant swing-and-miss pitches. The slider has remained stable as an out pitch to righties, being used 35 percent of the time versus just 31 percent last season. Right-handers still have not gotten a handle on the pitch, as they are missing 52 percent of the time just like last year. Ramos has demolished righties to the tune of a 25.6 percent strikeout rate and a .077/.163/.132 (.145 wOBA) line.
It is left-handers who gave Ramos the issues in the past. Because he has not been able to control his changeup in the zone, it was difficult to get ahead on counts and build up to finish hitters off at the plate. This year, the free passes have been fewer and farther between, while the swings and misses have been plenty. The changeup that Ramos wields is one of the least hittable pitches in baseball, and this year that has been true to an extreme. Left-handers have whiffed on 65 percent of their swings on the changeup, which is up from 55 percent last year.
Early in the year, it would seem as though Ramos's out-pitches have been more effective, and at least against righties, he has been able to place the slider a bit more often for called strikes as well. He will have to continue to entice more swings, particularly at those wild out-of-zone changeups, in order to have extended success, but the early signs have been good. Ramos has always had a tenuous balance on the mound, and right now that is leaning towards the positive. The .184 BABIP and tremendously weak contact probably will not last, but these early trends could lead to a better Ramos going forward.