As the Seattle Mariners work on filling out their rotation for 2013 and beyond, everyone rushes to put the names of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker after that of Felix Hernandez on the list. Those three have the hype and the pedigree that leads many to believe that they will long be anchoring the rotation in Seattle. And while "The Big Three" are certainly talented, even top prospects are no sure thing.
On the flipside, you have a pitcher like Erasmo Ramirez. There is nothing really big about Ramirez -- except maybe his guts and his fastball. But last night in Seattle, Ramirez gave a performance that should make many take notice of the diminutive right-hander.
In just his third start in the big leagues, Ramirez allowed one run on three hits over eight innings, walking only one batter while striking out a career-high 10 on 103 pitches. Ramirez kept hitters honest with a fastball that was sitting 93-96 all night, which is nothing new for him, but the 22-year-old threw far more off-speed pitches than in previous outings, getting a staggering 46.4% swing-and-miss rate on the 28 change-ups that he threw. And while the fastball sets everything else up, that change-up could be the weapon that determines if Erasmo Ramirez has what it takes to fit in the rotation for the Mariners.
Even before last night, Ramirez was getting good results on the pitch, running a whiff rate of above 15% -- the best of any of his pitches. But 13 swinging strikes in 28 pitches is an outstanding number. And the presence of the 81 to 83 MPH offering made his fastball and breaking ball more effective pitches, too.
The extensive use of his change-up was a new approach for Erasmo, however. He has been working so much with his fastball that he has more or less been negating the effect of that pitch by overuse. For example, in getting burned by the extra base hit in his last start in Arizona (three doubles, a triple and two home runs), 15 of the 20 balls put in play -- 75% -- were off of the fastball. And all but one of the pitches that was hit for extra bases was a fastball and all but one of those pitches were up in the top half of the zone. On top of that, he only threw the change-up in 11 of his 74 pitches. By contrast, last night that figure was 28 of 103 and nine of the 26 at bats on the night ended with the change-up, five of them on swinging strike outs, while only 53.8% of at bats ended against the fastball.
This is certainly a small sample size (eight innings) and it is "just the Oakland Athletics", but a close look at the numbers shows that the A's are actually in the best third of the league when it comes to swinging strikes at just 8.3% entering play last night. Of course, the club also ranked last in MLB in Pitch Value against the change-up (-10.8) before last night as well. And still, more important than the results for Ramirez is the change in approach.
Of course Ramirez isn't the only candidate for a spot in the rotation. The club has other options in-house, with Jason Vargas and Hector Noesi in the rotation now and Blake Beavan -- a young, cheap option and at the same time a "veteran" of 27 reasonably effective MLB starts -- down the freeway in Triple-A. But Vargas could be traded this season or sent away from the roster in one way or another before 2013. And Noesi has been pretty inconsistent overall, pretty bad on the road, and succeeded in the bullpen for the New York Yankees in 2011. And it isn't out of the question that the club may want to again add a veteran over this coming winter. But Ramirez faired well in the bullpen earlier this season, too, as he posted a 2.45 ERA in seven appearances before being sent down to Triple-A to work on getting stretched out to start games.
So what does this all mean? In all likelihood, it is probably too soon to tell. But it isn't too soon to tell that Ramirez should have figured something out about himself in that start last night, and if he can build on that success and use his entire repertoire more effectively instead of constantly pounding his fastball, he could certainly be a fit in the rotation for the Mariners going forward.