Toolshed: Ramirez makes pitch for Show

Left-handed reliever returns to Brewers to finish what he started

Nick Ramirez's 1.01 WHIP ranked fifth among Southern League pitchers with at least 70 innings in 2017. (Bobby Stevens/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | January 12, 2018 10:00 AM ET

Nick Ramirez is the Double-A Biloxi all-time leader in home runs (30) and games played (296). He's lofted 49 Double-A long balls, including those hit in 2014, when the Brewers affiliate was based in Huntsville. Ramirez made Southern League midseason All-Star teams in 2014 and 2015 and was the circuit's first base representative on the end-of-season All-Star squad in 2014 as well.

And now he's a pitcher -- one who's finally reached Triple-A after four years at the second-highest level. And after an impressive first pro season on the mound, a pitcher he will stay for the foreseeable future.

"It was like a breath of fresh air," the 28-year-old left-hander said of finally getting to Colorado Springs. "I was excited. It honestly made me think maybe I should've signed as a pitcher all along."

The Brewers might agree. They re-signed their 2011 fourth-rounder, who played both ways during his time at Cal State Fullerton, to a Minor League free-agent contract this week.

No one can blame either side for wanting to keep Ramirez on the mound. The southpaw posted a 1.37 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and .199 opponents' average while striking out 56 and walking 24 over 79 innings at Biloxi. He made the Southern League midseason All-Star team for a third time and earned that previously elusive promotion to the Pacific Coast League on Sept. 3 in time for Colorado Springs' playoff push.

As a seven-year player who had not been given a 40-man roster spot, Ramirez was able to test the free-agent waters. The Brewers were quick to reach out around the time of the World Series and eventually Ramirez reciprocated, deciding the best place for him was the only one he's ever known as a pro.

"It came down to working having a familiar plan and knowing everyone," he said. "They know me; I know them. Being new to pitching, I didn't want to go and have to prove myself to somebody new all over again. They know what I can do because they've helped get me here."

Milwaukee's decision to try Ramirez as a pitcher was not a snap one. The organization first approached him with the idea in the second half of the 2016 season, his third straight at Double-A. He finished that campaign with a .206/.316/.404 line, 14 homers, one triple and 12 doubles in 113 games. Despite all of his experience in the Southern League, Ramirez was barely better than league average with the bat and, with free agency looming after 2017, he needed to make a change to have a bigger future with the Brewers or someone else.

Luckily, the 6-foot-3 left-hander had been a reliever in college and a dominant one at that. In three seasons with the Titans, Ramirez notched 34 saves, a 2.64 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP with 99 strikeouts over 109 innings. The Brewers wanted to see how much was left in the tank six years later.

The early returns were promising, if rough. He appeared in six Major League Spring Training games for Milwaukee, giving up three earned runs on five hits and three walks in 3 2/3 innings while hitting 91 mph on the radar gun. Instead of giving Ramirez an easy road to grow into himself on the mound, the Brewers pushed him right back to Biloxi out of camp. Using a four-pitch mix that included a slider, curveball and changeup, Ramirez limited runs early on but not free passes. He posted a 1.59 ERA over 11 1/3 innings in April but walked seven and struck out five. By the close of the first half, he sported a 1.47 ERA with 23 strikeouts and 17 walks over 36 2/3 frames. That was good enough to earn an All-Star spot in the 10-team league, but the organization and pitcher were looking for more.

"The first month, I was coming into games scared to pitch to contact, and that's why you saw my walks were up," Ramirez said. "Once [manager Mike Guerrero and pitching coach Chris Hook] told me, 'We forget sometimes you're still transitioning. Once you prove you're comfortable, we'll put you back into high-leverage situations.' That didn't sound great, but I knew I had to get back to trusting my pitches, that I didn't need to pitch away from contact so much. That's when pitching got easier. I could attack more. I could pitch up. I started using a cutter instead of the slider. Once I got comfortable out there, it took off."

In fact, the development of the cutter came as a result of Ramirez's constant thinking as a hitter -- a role he still got to play occasionally as a pinch hitter or when he was on the mound and his spot in the order came up. He realized his slider wasn't really a weapon. He was trying to get on top of it too much like his curveball and that caused it to look lazy at times. Ramirez knew where lazy sliders ended up, and it was usually 300-plus feet away. He pushed to include the cutter -- a pitch he eventually developed to have much harder movement than the offering it replaced in his repertoire -- early on in the summer, but Hook had told him he still needed to learn to walk before he could run.

"He told me this analogy of imagine you ask your wife to go to the grocery store for milk and she comes back with ice cream," Ramirez said. "The point of that emphasizes that you have to do the basic stuff first before you get fancy. I had to get my fastball command down before I could do something else. Once I started throwing the fastball to both sides well, that's when I could start messing around."

The change in philosophy reaped big rewards over the second half. Ramirez's ability to limit runs remained as impressive as it was in the first half, with a 1.28 ERA over 42 1/3 innings. But he also proved incredibly difficult to hit (.178 average against), and his walk rate dropped from 11.1 percent to a 4.4 (seven walks over 159 batters). His strikeout percentage correspondingly ticked up to 20.8 percent in the second half from 15.0 percent in the first. By July and August, his velocity rose to the mid-90s.

What's more, he was incredibly difficult against left-handers, holding them to a .167 average all season. But he also was no slouch against right-handers, who batted .215 off the southpaw in the Southern League.

"I think that comes down to my changeup," Ramirez said of what made him effective to batters on both sides. "I know I have a pretty good one, and it's not something either a lefty or righty can pick up as well. Even in college, I even felt more comfortable against right-handed hitters. ... I think a part of that was the worry about missing armside against lefties. I might fly open a little more against them, worrying about coming too far inside, and that leads to problems. It was a visual thing. But the more I got back to pitching, the more comfortable I got, no matter who was batting."

The Brewers liked enough of what they saw to push Ramirez out of the Southern League for the first time on Sept. 3. He retired the first and only regular-season Triple-A batter he faced but was roughed up for six earned runs on six hits, including a homer, over 1 2/3 innings in two appearances in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. That small sample aside, there was a belief in Ramirez's camp that he may have done enough to nab a 40-man spot before he could declare free agency. That never happened, but it didn't faze the left-hander.

"That was definitely on the table," Ramirez said of the 40-man roster. "Obviously, it didn't work out, and that's baseball. For me, it's more of a thing where I knew I did the best I could do and the rest just is not in my hands. We looked to see what else we could do when the opportunity came up, and I still signed because I really think this is the best chance for me."

Even though Ramirez's signing didn't become official until this week, he hasn't been far from the Brewers' influence. He's spent his second offseason as a pitcher working with Brewers All-Star reliever Corey Knebel, who resides about seven miles from where Ramirez lives with fiancée Tiffany in Austin, Texas. Knebel has helped Ramirez refine his release point during their games of catch, which probably wouldn't have come about had Ramirez just been working out on his own. The former first baseman still picks up a bat in his attempt to carve out a roster spot in more ways than one -- and to make the most of staying in the National League and the home of the double switch. 

One thing is certain after seven years of pro ball: Ramirez feels like he's finally nearing The Show.

"Being left-handed, being able to pitch, yeah, I feel a little closer than most guys now," he said. "Left-handed pitching always plays a big role. I'm hungry to compete for it. ... Obviously, everyone's career path happens for a reason. God wanted me to smash some home runs, I guess, before I could figure out what was really best for me. I'm a firm believer in God puts you where need to be. I'm right where I should be."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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