The Rays might have found another starting pitcher.
Cesar Ramos, acquired as a relief pitcher in 2011, is getting a second chance in the rotation. With Chris Archer slowed by an oblique injury and little else on the Durham Bulls staff, the Rays have begun the process of stretching Ramos out as a starter in case of an opening–via trade or injury–in the major-league rotation. Ramos started for the Rays once already this season–the second leg of a double-header against the Philadelphia Phillies back in June–and went at least three innings in three other appearances.
As a member of the Padres organization, the left-hander made 50 career starts, two of which came in the majors. Since 2010, he has pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen, and all 59 of his appearances with the Rays last season came in relief. The organization has a good idea of what Ramos can do in relief; however, there is no harm in giving him a shot in the rotation–especially when the talent pool is shallow at the upper-levels of the system.
Like most left-handed relievers, Ramos failed as a starter in-part because of the platoon split. For his career, he has held lefties to a stellar .214/.293/.268 line, while righties have hit .282/.376/.403. With those numbers, and the repertoire to match, Ramos seemed destined for a career as a left-handed specialist. But seeming improvements this season plant the seeds of optimism.
Last season, right-handed batters hit just .227 in 92 plate appearances against Ramos. Righties weren’t unloading on Ramos, and often they didn’t have to. He walked 16 of them–five more than he struck out–good for a .359 on-base percentage.
The bulk of Ramos’ struggles against right-handers came to his glove side–or the inner half to righties. Most of his hits allowed came on pitches middle-in, and he could not locate the inside fastball for a strike. Of the middle-in fastballs he threw, around 20 percent were called strikes.
This season, the results are different. Thus far in 24 innings of work, he has held righties to a .122/.234/.195 line with a 2:1 strikeout-to walk ratio. He continues to excel against lefties (.196/.275/.196), punching out 11 and walking just three.
Ramos now owns the middle-in portion of the zone going against the platoon split. Righties are having less success hitting middle-in pitches, and the 28-year-old is spotting the fastball with ease. His called strike rate on middle-in pitches is a tick over 40 percent this season.
So what’s the difference?
Perhaps a coincidence, but like Fernando Rodney, it appears as if Ramos has altered his position on the rubber. The change is not as extreme as Rodney, who shifted sides, but even a small adjustment could have some impact. Look closely at the image below…
At first glance, there appears to be no change. Now look closer at the toes on Ramos’ back foot. On the left (2011), you will notice his toes are aligned with the end of the rubber. On the right (2012), his feet are more centered and there are a few inches between toe and the end of the rubber.
In his last major-league outing, Ramos struck out six batters in four innings, subbing for an injured Alex Cobb. In his first start for Durham, he went five innings, allowing two runs, and striking out three. He needed just 64 pitches to complete the five frames.
Armed with a low-90s fastball,, a changeup for righties, a slider for lefties, and curveball for both, Ramos has enough pitches to be a starter. He also keeps the ball on the ground which helps limit extra-base hits. Maybe his improvement versus right-handers is a serendipitous discovery. Or maybe a small move on the mound has led to a big change in fastball command.
Whatever the reason, if Ramos can sustain success against right-handers while maintaining his dominance versus fellow lefties, his value may be much greater than a platoon specialist. Even if the starting experiment does not go as planned, the Rays still have a versatile reliever under team control for several years.