Jason A. Churchill

Erasmo Ramirez was never a highly-touted prospect. The Nicaragua native arrived in the states from Venezuela with zero fanfare, below-average velocity, a two-pitch combination and very good control. To simplify, Ramirez didn’t throw hard but he threw strikes with his mid-80s fastball and a solid changeup.

As he matured physically and learned how to pitch, however, the 5-foot-10 right-hander added velocity gradually, developed two breaking balls — a slow 12-6 curveball and a slider with tilt — and maintained his ability to throw strikes.

Once he arrived at Double-A, Ramirez was sitting 90-93 mph and touching 95. The changeup still was his best secondary pitch but the slider had closed the gap and become a legitimate weapon versus right-handed batters, inducing swings and misses and keeping them off his fastball.

Despite his lack of prototypical height, Ramirez has always been strong in his lower half and employed an easy, repeatable, compact delivery. That delivery, including a true three-quarter arm slot, fit his arsenal well, creating some deception — he hid the ball well yet possessed the arm speed to avoid an arm lag. He stayed on top of his pitches well — important for a shorter pitcher so he can create some plane on his fastball, keep the slider down in the zone and overall avoid leaving pitches up in the zone.

By the time he made his big-league debut as a starter in June of 2012, Ramirez had looked the part of a potential mid-rotation starter judging by his performance in Triple-A Tacoma and in a relief role with the Seattle Mariners.

In his spot duty with the big club Ramirez had shown the ability to get through the fifth and sixth inning on a somewhat regular basis, even getting into the seventh or eighth on occasion.

The 24-year-old has struggled something fierce this season, allowing 25 earned runs on 41 hits in 33 innings of work. He’s yielded nine home runs and walked 13 batters while striking out 28. The strikeout rate is satisfactory. Nothing else is.

Ramirez is falling behind in counts more often than at any point in his career and his velocity is down more than 1.5 mph.

If he’s not hurt, there has to be an explanation.

Here’s one theory:

Ramirez’s arm slot appears to have dropped this year, which could, at least in part, explain some of his aforementioned issues.

Below, courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Pitchf/X, is Ramirez’s release point September 11, 2012, an outing in which Ramirez was terrific:


Now, also courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Pitchf/X, is where that release point was in Tuesdays start:


As you can clearly see, Ramirez’s release point was significantly lower — more toward sidearm — Tuesday than he was in the past. The numbers on the left wall of each chart is the release point height in feet, so even a half tick down represents a significant differential. Even an eighth of an inch can make an impact.

Throwing from a lower arm slot can do many things, mostly bad, particularly if it’s unintentional and without specific design. Fastballs will move more horizontally, which can be good, but it can make the pitch more difficult to command with consistency. Those same fastballs, however, will be flat and without plane and less vertical movement, making them much easier to barrel up and lift for line drives and fly balls.

Such an arm slot does many of the same things to a changeup, and it can take away vertical break on a breaking ball. For Ramirez, his slider has leveled out and his curveball has been more a very slow slurve, lacking sharp break and depth.

Ramirez has added a sinker to his arsenal since the September, 2012 outing, but that pitch, too, can suffer from a pitcher getting on the side of the ball, and/or dropping the arm slot and release point.

He’s always cut himself off a little bit out front, meaning he has never followed through ideally, i.e., the classic Steve Carlton or Nolan Ryan, but he appeared to pull up and flick the ball a little more prominently in his start Tuesday. This start is very representative of how Ramirez has looked most of the 2014 season, including spring training and it’s my opinion that Ramirez cannot afford such an alteration. He needs his slider to bite down more than break away from right-handed batters, like the ones in these highlights here, and he desperately needs to stay down in the zone, especially with his secondary offerings; Ramirez has always pitched up in the zone with his fastball, but when he was able to stay on top of the pitch better, he commanded it with more consistency and the pitch offered more late movement, including some late sink on the sinker itself.

This season, Ramirez’s slider is floating to the plate, the break is not nearly as sharp and the vertical bite is limited to cutter-like action — Pitchf/X backs up that assessment by comparing this from 2014 to this from 2012 — which means he will not command the pitch because he’s expecting, or at least hoping, that the pitch will break more than it actually does.

Erasmo Ramirez has the raw stuff to compete in Major League Baseball and serve as a reliable back-end starting pitcher. He’s shown he can repeat his delivery and go through a lineup three times, miss some bats and limit the bases on balls enough to do it all with enough efficiency. The pitcher that displayed all that, however, is not in uniform this season.

If he’s hurt, that takes all precedence. If he’s not, Ramirez may need to work on an arm slot that is more high three-quarter, as he did a few years back when he first made an impression on the organization. Doing will allow him to pressure the top of the baseball better, recreating some downward life on his fastball and perhaps regenerating some or all of the sharp break we’ve seen from his slider. Such a recall completely changes Ramirez’s profile, restoring his raw stuff and giving him a chance to help the Mariners win games every five days.

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

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