Erasmo Ramirez and Identifying Ideal Strike-Stealing Pitches

Talking to Erasmo Ramirez is refreshing. He always has a smile on his face. Life is fun for him — especially now. He’s having the best season of his career in Tampa Bay. It turns out that changing the use of his slider has been a big part of that success. And certain aspects of his slider may provide a roadmap for other pitchers that should make the same move.

His best pitch is his changeup — “it’s the best one to take me out of troubles,” the pitcher admitted to me — but it’s not good enough to throw every single time. “I try to stay away from it, and show the hitters I’m going to throw every pitch I have in my arsenal,” Ramirez said of his pitching mix.

ErasmoChange
The grip for the change thrown by Erasmo Ramirez, which has the seventh-best swinging strike rate in baseball (min. 400).

The breaking balls haven’t been great. Even as Tony Blengino waxed positively on the pitcher recently, he admitted that “his breaking balls needed reps” coming up. Ramirez this year has been using his curve less (“I’ve been trying to stay away from it, unless I have it rolling.”) but a key change in his slider usage has been huge.

For his career, batters have loved facing his slider. Their .267 career ISO against the pitch is the highest of any of his pitches, despite the above-average whiff rate (14.7%). It turns out, this is because Ramirez has trouble commanding the slider. “Before, when I was ahead 0-2, 1-2, I had trouble getting the breaking ball down,” Ramirez said. “Now I can get it down more often.”

What changed? Ramirez uses the slider in different counts now. After talking to his pitching coach, he made a realization. “If it’s hard for you to throw balls with the slider or curve, start with the slider or curve!” he exclaimed to me. Everything sort of fell into place once he made that realization.

Ramirez continued to ruminate on his slider: “I know when I miss, it won’t be a ball. Then when I get to the end of the matchup, I know I can control the fastball out of the zone, and the changeup out of the zone, so I finish with those two. Start the opposite the way. Because most of the time, I can’t bring it down. So everything is around the strike zone. Use it for strikes. And then I start getting the feeling back with the breakers and I can start to control it outside of the zone.”

This year, Ramirez is throwing the slider as the first pitch 20% of the time, compared to 15% of the time in the past. His usage is up in all zero-strike counts, too. Batters have a .310 ISO on the pitch still — woof — but they’re swinging at the pitch less (down from 51% to 45%) because he’s throwing it in counts where they expect fastballs. That’s the “stolen strike,” the called strike when the batter is expecting a fastball and gets something else.

Hopefully this approach will help Erasmo Ramirez steal strikes with the slider and improve his ability to keep it out of the zone. Is it possible that his story can be used to find other pitches that should be treated the same way?

Let’s take a different look at his arsenal.

Erasmo Ramirez Whiffs/Swing in Strike Zone
pitch_type All Whiffs/Swing Zone Whiffs/Swing Indexed Differential Indexed Zone Whiff%
SL 35% 20% 90 133
CU 44% 28% 95 218
CH 40% 26% 124 142
FF 13% 10% 100 80
FT 3% 4% -4 46
Indexed Differential = difference between zone whiff% & all whiff% divided by league pitch difference * 100
Indexed Zone Whiff% = zone whiff% divided by league zone whiff% * 100

Reading this table in plain English: Ramirez has a slider that gets good whiffs, whether it’s in or out of the zone, compared to the league’s sliders. To offer the most extreme, absurd counterpoint: Pedro Strop’s slider gets 54% whiffs per swing on pitches outside the zone, and 14% on pitches inside the zone. Pedro Strop should probably not throw his slider in the zone.

In order to find other strike-stealing candidates, we’re looking for starting pitchers that get decent whiffs on a pitch inside the zone, and have a small differential between inside and outside the zone. That means that, if the batter swings, they’re not offering a meatball, but it also looks like they can command the pitch inside the zone. In order to sort this grouping into our finalists, let’s also look for pitches that currently have high swing rates and bad outcomes.

Here’s your group of pitchers that should consider using these pitches for stolen strikes.

Strike-Stealing Pitch Candidates
Name pitch_type All Whiff% Zone Whiff% Diff+ zWhiff%+ Swing%+ ISO 0-0% All%
Danny Duffy CH 24% 26% -20 142 86 .196 8% 10%
Jered Weaver CU 26% 21% 32 161 123 .250 21% 22%
CC Sabathia SL 27% 19% 46 126 74 .186 27% 23%
Ubaldo Jimenez SL 29% 20% 53 128 79 .236 20% 14%
Matt Garza CU 28% 18% 59 141 74 .208 22% 14%
Raisel Iglesias SL 40% 25% 89 166 104 .204 26% 28%
Diff+ = difference between zone whiff% & all whiff% divided by league pitch difference * 100
zWhiff%+ = zone whiff% divided by league zone whiff% * 100
Swing%+ = pitcher pitch swing% divided by league pitch swing% * 100
0-0% = percent pitch used on first pitch

Right off the bat, it looks like we’ve done a good job. Mostly because a few of these guys are already using these pitches this way. Look at CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Matt Garza — they are suppressing swings on their battered pitches by throwing them in first pitches — right now. And if the batter swings, they still get a decent amount of whiffs on the pitch.

But we still have a few candidates for change. Danny Duffy’s change is not a great pitch by movement — it only gets two inches of drop off his fourseam, and an inch of fade over his two-seam — but it has a an average velocity gap. It gets okay whiffs in or out of the zone. Looks like a great pitch to throw in fastball counts. You could say the same for Raisel Iglesias and his slider.

While those two may not have the command to pull it off, Jered Weaver’s name has come up repeatedly in my conversations with pitchers about command. He can command the curve to steal strikes. The only problem with his candidacy is that he already throws any pitch in any count, and throwing the curve more often in fastball counts might actually make him more predictable.

Erasmo Ramirez found that he was around the zone anyway with a pitch that got decent whiffs whether it was in the zone or out. So he decided to change his usage of the pitch and throw more sliders in fastball counts. Turns out, his approach might be useful for Danny Duffy’s changeup and Raisel Iglesias’ slider as well.

We hoped you liked reading Erasmo Ramirez and Identifying Ideal Strike-Stealing Pitches by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Jack Zduriencik
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Jack Zduriencik

J.A. Happ earlier and now this?! You’re welcome.