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2016 Miami Marlins Season Preview: A.J. Ramos

The Marlins' closer is back for a second season at the helm of the ninth inning, but can he maintain the torrid pace he put up in the first half of 2015?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins' bullpen underwent some turmoil with the news that Carter Capps, who was competing for a closer role, will undergo Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow and be out for the season. This leaves the Marlins with their incumbent closer option, righty reliever A.J. Ramos. Ramos took over the closer spot last season from an embattled Steve Cishek and succeeded in a big way, putting up a strong campaign with huge changes in his typical profile. However, the second half held some of the same problems Ramos always displayed. Can he hold those issues back now that he is the undisputed closer for the team?

Bullpen Depth Chart

Closer: A.J. Ramos
Setup: Mike Dunn
Setup: Bryan Morris
7th Inning: Kyle Barraclough
7th Inning: Brian Ellington
7th Inning: Nick Wittgren
7th Inning/Long Relief: Brad Hand
7th Inning/Long Relief: Edwin Jackson

Minor League Depth: Scott McClough, Raudel Lazo, Nefi Ogando, Tim Berry

Ramos earned the prestigious closer spot by pitching very well in the ninth inning after taking over for Cishek. The first half for Ramos was fantastic; he walked just 6.7 percent of batters faced while whiffing a whopping 33.6 percent of batters faced. Strikeouts have never been the issue for Ramos; he owns a career 28 percent strikeout rate and those numbers have been improving as he has gotten used to the big leagues. But the problem of walks, at least in that first half, was solved. Oddly enough, it was not an issue with placing the ball more in the strike zone, as Ramos's balls to called strike ratios remained pretty similar from 2014 to 2015. It all depended on the enticing-ness of the change-up, a pitch that induced swings on 60 percent of pitches last season. Ramos's change-up is one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, and placing it just a tiny bit closer to the strike zone than it was before has gotten more batters to go after it and find their swings wanting.

This sounds like a real potential change and a game-breaker for a guy who has always had great stuff. In 2014, Ramos's change was hacked at and missed on 51 percent of his swings. The slider, which is the secondary offering to right-handers, was whiffed on on 48 percent of swings. Ramos's pitches boast heavy movement and do not appear to be likely to decline in coming seasons. The fact that he has an effective out pitch against both lefties and righties, combined with his more recent development of throwing the change-up effectively versus righties, makes him an ideal endgame finisher capable of facing both sides of the plate.

Source: Jason Getz, USA TODAY Sports

The problem always comes back to control. If Ramos can continue to cluster his pitches enough to get batters to swing, his stuff is mesmerizing despite the low-90's right-handed fastball. If he is too wild, however, he reverts to the second half of the 2015 model. During that time, his strikeout rate dropped down to career marks and he walked 12.5 percent of batters faced, right around his career marks. This is a concern because, at some point, the magic of his pitches may not overwhelm batters who have learned his style enough to lay off of his offerings. Ramos is never going to get by via hitting the strike zone frequently; even with a zone rate of nearly 50 percent in 2013, he still walked 12.7 percent of batters faced. He has to find the right happy balance between staying near the zone but not so close to get clobbered, particularly with the fastball.

Ramos, 2016 IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
ZiPS 67 1/3 10.7 4.4 2.81 3.33 0.6
Steamer 65 10.1 4.0 3.34 3.39 0.5
PECOTA 67 10.2 4.1 3.62 --- 0.5

The projection for Ramos is all dependent on whether he maintains his home run suppression, which is a tool that he has had for some time. Ramos has allowed just 13 homers in 223 2/3 career innings, but six of those homers came last season. Last season's 0.7 home runs per nine innings are far more sustainable than his previous career rates, but Baseball Prospectus suspects even further regression towards the league average. At this stage, we have a decent sense that Ramos at full strength for one inning is able to suppress contact to a certain degree, much like spiritual predecessors Renyel Pinto and Carlos Marmol before him. Betting on low home run rates and a slightly depressed BABIP may not be a bad gamble.

The rest of his game appears to remain intact. The systems are all essentially projecting a slightly improved mark on his career strikeout and walk rates. No one can expect a continued .252 BABiP, which explains why the ERA numbers are higher than his career 2.62 mark. The overall projection is that of a 3.39 ERA. That 3.39 mark in 70 innings pitched would be worth 0.9 WAR.

The unspectacular ERA makes for just a one-win season for Ramos. However, if one expects Ramos to continue to outperform his peripherals because of some semblance of increased weak contact, the numbers could look better. And even with this ERA, it is hard to say that we are accurately portraying the value of a closer or relief pitcher with our current system of calculations. Relief is a difficult game to ply, and we still are not sure if we have the right formula for it. Much like Ramos, the amount of wins he and any relief pitcher outside of the most elite is a mystery. Miami will put Ramos in the closer's spot and find out if it will be a success.