- Born December 22, 1989 (Age 31).
- Entering seventh big league season with third different team.
- Attended college at California State Fullerton, the same grounds once stomped by a list of recent Reds that include Michael Lorenzen, Dylan Floro, Chad Wallach and Christian Colon.
- Dead ringer for Otto Mann.
- Fourth round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
- Debuted on July 3, 2015.
- Selected off waivers by the Los Angeles Angels on August 18, 2017.
- Traded with Leonardo Rivas to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Raisel Iglesias on December 7, 2020.
Let’s get something out of the way very quickly: Noe Ramirez is unlikely to pitch as well as Raisel Iglesias in 2021. And that isn’t his fault. Iglesias is one of the better relievers around, with and is coming off looking the best he ever has in 2020. It isn’t Ramirez’s fault that the Reds picked him out as the returning player in what was otherwise a shameless salary dump back in December, so it isn’t fair that the sting of that salary dump will weigh heavily on fans’ minds each time he steps on the mound this year.
That being said, Ramirez can still be a fine pitcher in Cincinnati. As recently as 2019, he struck out better than 10 batters per nine innings, walked fewer than three per nine, and finished with a sub-4.00 FIP. He’s also been something of a workhorse out of the bullpen, with his 162.2 innings pitched since 2018 ranking 11th among all relievers in that span. Ramirez can be effective, and he can be durable. You can’t have too many of those guys around.
That 2019 performance is what the Reds will be hoping to get from Ramirez in 2021. That year, he was in the 80th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard hit rate, expected wOBA, expected ERA, and whiff rate. It’s good when a pitcher can minimize hard contact, and it’s good when a pitcher can miss bats. If he can do both of those at the same time, he’s probably going to enjoy a good season.
Unfortunately, that 2019 season is the outlier when it comes Ramirez’s track record. Last year, opponents made hard contact against him more often, and whiffed a lot less. Why they did so, though, is difficult to figure out. Here’s how the whiff rates against each of his pitches has changed over the years:
Each of this two favorite pitches in 2020 saw sharp declines in whiff percentage. His fastball’s swing and miss rate was cut by about a third, while his changeup whiff rate was nearly cut in half. The latter is of particular concern. Since Ramirez throws his fastball only in the high-80s, it’s hard to expect batters to miss it too often. On top of that, his fastball was actually his best-performing pitch in 2020, despite the decline in whiffs — opponents had just a .119 wOBA against it in 32 plate appearances, and a .204 xwOBA. Hitters might have made more contact against the fastball, but it didn’t translate into more success against the pitch. The same wasn’t the case, however, with the changeup.
Ramirez’s cambio went from allowing a .220 xwOBA in 2019 to a .321 xwOBA in ‘20, as its whiff rate fell from 34% to just under 19%. There are a couple of potential causes for this that immediately come to mind — the pitch could have lost movement from previous seasons, or it could have been thrown in the strike zone more often, where batters could have an easier time getting to it. Neither of those possibilities, however, apply to Ramirez in 2020. Ramirez literally had the best vertical movement on his changeup of any pitcher in baseball last year. You can see it in the GIFs above. It’s filthy. And Ramirez was making batters reach lower and lower with their swings to try and get to it. Here’s where he was throwing the changeup in 2019:
And here’s where he threw it in 2020:
All of this is good news, so why did the pitch regress? We could agonize for a long while over it, but it’s likely that the biggest culprit is also the most unsatisfying and difficult to prove: the small sample size of 2020. We are, of course, talking about a 32-PA sample against the pitch, compared with 112 plate appearances in 2019. When a pitcher makes a big step forward in one year, then hits a skid in a very small sample size the following year despite maintaining similar quality of stuff and approach, the best plan is usually to wait another year and see if a larger set of data doesn’t iron things out.
Ramirez has never been a lights-out pitcher, and chances are he won’t suddenly become one at age 31. But he possesses a few attributes that should be fun for the Reds’ pitching instructors to play with. He throws a lot of junk, can have a ton of spin on his breaking ball, and has one of the game’s most distinct changeups. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in seeing how Cincinnati decides to deploy all of that in the coming season.