Neil Ramirez Facing Troubling Velo Issues as He Tries to Bounce Back

Neil Ramirez was nothing short of a revelation in 2014. After six years spent ping-ponging around both the Rangers and Cubs systems, Ramirez was called up to Chicago and tallied 43.2 innings over 50 appearances in his first big-league season. Armed with a blazing fastball, he struck out nearly 11 men per 9 innings en route to a skimpy 1.44 ERA and looked as though he could be a real keystone of the bullpen. Then 2015 happened.

Shoulder and abdominal issues forced Ramirez to spend most of the season on the DL, limiting him to only 14 innings pitched in 19 appearances. The numbers — 3.21 ERA and 9.69 K/9 — didn’t look terrible on paper, but the hidden text between the lines was ominous.

Despite its ubiquity, ERA is an imperfect measure of a pitcher’s talent, much like batting average for a hitter. And just like BABIP can help us discern how “lucky” a hitter is, metrics like FIP and xFIP give us a more accurate picture of a pitcher’s true performance by removing outcomes he can’t control from the mound. In that 2014 season, Ramirez’s 2.68 FIP and 3.48 xFIP were indicators that that minuscule ERA was perhaps a bit of a red herring. In other words, he may have benefited from more than his fair share of good fortune.

Then again, there’s something to be said for making your own luck, something I wrote about when it comes to Kris Bryant and his extraordinarily high BABIP in 2015. Bryant’s calling card is his tremendous power, but he also used his speed to leg out hits that would have been routine outs for most players. In similar fashion, Ramirez was able to run his fastball up to the plate at nearly 95 mph, setting it off with a slider and curve. In terms of runs above average — how many runs a pitcher saves with a given pitch — per 100 pitches, the heater (1.42) was one of the best in baseball in 2014, ranking 22nd out of 366 pitchers who logged at least 40 innings.

Being able to locate and change speeds are key for a reliever, and being able to dial the velocity up to the mid-90’s helps to leverage those attributes. When the velo drops, however, hitters are able to get more comfortable and time things up. That could well be why last year’s ERA exactly matched a 3.21 FIP and wasn’t too far below a 4.07 xFIP.

Roughly 40 percent (297 of 733) of the pitches Ramirez threw in 2014 were fastballs that lit up the radar gun at 94 mph or greater, while only 13 percent (97 of 733) of his offerings were heaters that registered between 90 and 94 mph.

chart (2)
Neil Ramirez FB velo 2014

Compare that to 2015’s results, in which only 7.66 percent (19 of 248) of the righty’s pitches topped 94 mph. The 2015 chart is a bit more spread out due to the dearth of data, but the differences are alarmingly obvious.

chart (3)
Neil Ramirez FB velo 2015

You can almost see the shoulder injury in the chart above, just after that last 95+ mph pitch. The dates aren’t shown in the plot points here, but the early cluster that stands out above the rest came on April 11. That game alone featured 14 of the 19 pitches Ramirez threw harder than 94 (no other game had more than one such pitch) and all five he threw 95 mph or faster. He went on to make two more appearances prior to hitting the DL for the first time, but his velo was noticeably down in both.

On the whole, Ramirez’s fastball had dropped from 94.8 to 93.4 mph, the slider from 86.9 to 85.1, and the curve from 79.3 to 76.9 mph. The numbers show that the fastball actually cost the Cubs one run per 100 pitches last season while the slidepiece saved 3.10, but the sample size is so small that those metrics are pretty much irrelevant. Can we wave our hand dismissively at the velocity numbers though?

A trip to the DL will disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm, but an arm injury can sap both strength and confidence. You can rehab muscles and joints, but the mind is not always as easy to treat. The seeds of fear grow silently, but their roots run deep and wide. And when your longest outing spans only three outs, it doesn’t take much for the deleterious scourge of doubt to creep in and choke out even the most elite talent.

Whether the issue for Ramirez is mental or physical, I don’t know. What I do know is that a noticeable drop in velocity from a 26-year-old is not a good sign. And make no mistake, what looks like a small change in the numbers above is anything but. Again, everything’s exaggerated when your job involves facing only a few hitters every couple days or so.

The hope was that the offseason would give Ramirez time to recover the form that had established such high expectations a couple seasons ago. Accurate data can be a little hard to come by in Spring Training, but what little information is available thus far isn’t necessarily encouraging. The fastball has been sitting in the low 90’s, topping out at 93, and the slider has been in the low 80’s, touching 85 at times.

That information was culled from only two of Ramirez’s four spring appearances, though, and he could very well be setting the cruise and building up strength at this point. I should note that he did strike out the side in the 7th inning of Tuesday’s win over the Padres, so there’s that.

Ramirez is out of options, so the Cubs would have to expose him to waivers if they don’t feel he’s worthy of a spot on the 25-man roster. Because there’s a high likelihood that another team would claim him, I tend to think we’ll see him make the cut when camp closes. Of course, that’s also operating under the assumption that the team chooses to carry 8 bullpen arms.

In the end, I believe it comes down to potential and the hope that Ramirez still has enough of it to merit a roster spot. For now, at least. If he can still give it a little gas, it’ll be a good thing for both him and the Cubs.

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