Grading the 2014 Chicago Cubs: Neil Ramirez

Bullpens are built from the ashes of failed starting pitching prospects, and “Neil Ramirez, Starting Pitcher” never did quite work out.

The 77th-best prospect in baseball before 2012 according to Baseball America, Ramirez was known as a hard thrower who could miss bats with the best of them, but had issues with control and commanding his fastball in the zone. As he progressed through the minors, results and stuff didn’t keep pace. After 123 disastrous innings between AA and AAA in 2012, Ramirez repeated AA with only marginal improvements.

His stock dropped to the point of being nearly an afterthought in the Matt Garza deal, and he was shut down after just one start in Tennessee. Between bouts of ineffectiveness and shoulder injuries, the logical landing spot for Ramirez was the bullpen.

Despite a strong showing in Spring Training (where I saw him and was impressed by his fastball-cutter/slider-curve combo), Ramirez gave up six runs in his first seven games in Iowa. The garbage-time innings in Arizona were impressive, but expectations for Ramirez were quite low.

Because humans and their expectations are fundamentally flawed and ill-informed, Ramirez went out and shoved all season long.

Even in the context of historically-low offensive production, what Ramirez did this year was remarkable – a 1.44 ERA (39 ERA-) in 43 2/3 innings, 53 K, 17 BB, and just 29 hits. Ramirez posted the 7th-best ERA, 8th-best ERA-, and 22nd-best K% among rookie relief seasons of 40 or more innings since 2008 (when drug testing rules were added to the sport). His ERA was below 1 as late as September 5th!

Ramirez built this season on the strength of his fastball, which ticked up quite a bit with the move to the bullpen. In short stints, he was able to average about 95 mph and often touched higher. Ramirez does not locate the pitch especially well, but it has some movement and truly explodes out of his hand. On a side note, the main reason I do not see a move back to the rotation in his future is that I do not think he would sustain this velocity, and as a result would be far less effective.

Off of that fastball, Ramriez threw a monster slider that generated a bunch of swings and misses. I loved this pitch, especially as Ramirez added and subtracted from it depending on the situation. He was able to snap it off in the high-80s when necessary, uncorking a tight, cutter-ish type slider that was death in two-strike counts. Other times, he threw it in the low-to-mid-80s, generating a sweeping slider that dove out of the zone.

While his curveball is nothing special, it worked well enough in its role of changing the hitter’s eye level and coming in at a far lower velocity than the slider or fastball. It caught people off-balance often enough to not get whacked around.

Though he did have a great year, Ramirez’ season still left lots of room for improvement. His 1.44 ERA was built on excellent stuff, yes, but it was also built on some exceptional “luck” stats. Ramirez’ .262 BABIP, 81.9% strand rate, and 3.8% HR/FB% are all in a range that, unless he shows he can repeat them over many seasons, is going to be viewed with a skeptical eye. That last number, the HR/FB%, is the scary one here because Ramirez gives up a ton of fly balls.

This isn’t by accident, either – Ramirez simply loves to work up in the zone with his fastball.

ramirez fastball

When you throw in the mid-to-high-90s and make hitters fear a breaking ball, you can sort of get away with this approach. In fact, if you go through Ramirez’ videos on, you’ll see a lot of high fastballs jamming guys for easy popouts (11.5% of contact off Ramirez this year were popups). This doesn’t change the fact, though, that MLB hitters will eventually start to square up that belt-high middle-of-the-plate fastball with regularity. That they didn’t in 2014 is something of a miracle, reflected by a FIP (2.62), xFIP (3.48), and SIERA (2.82) that are all over a run higher than his ERA.

Whether or not he’ll get touched up in the future is another post. For better or worse, Ramirez lived in the upper reaches of the zone in 2014 and had a hell of a year while doing so.


For posting a disgustingly low ERA and being part of a quality MLB pen, I’m giving Neil Ramirez a A- for the season. Normally a 1.44 ERA is going to receive an A+ grade, but it doesn’t appear Ramirez grew too much as a pitcher – he’s still pitching up in the zone – nor does it appear he was quite as good as his ERA suggests. Still, the raw stuff and strikeouts were exciting as you can get out of an 8th inning guy, and for that I’m sure all Cubs fans are grateful.

Writer Tom Evan Tommy Ryan Justin Bryan GPA
Grade A- A- A- A- A- B+ 3.61


Other Grades:

Starlin Castro

Jake Arrieta

Chris Coghlan

Edwin Jackson

Back to top button