I’m lying to you guys, just a little bit. This isn’t really a sequence of the week, but a couple chopped up sequences from the last few days that, for once, actually tell us a little bit more when they’re presented out of order than one after the other. In this case, it’s an excuse to share with you all what I found while watching Nick Ramirez work against the Oakland Athletics this week, looking at his stats — a pristine 1.93 ERA in 15 appearances even after allowing a run against the A’s — and asking myself, “What?”
To start with, like seemingly every new Yankees reliever that gets worked into the fold, he leads the way with a sinker. The thing about Nick Ramirez’s sinker is that even though it barely clips 90 mph on a good day, it’s an absolute bowling ball. It’s got just 3.7 inches of Induced Vertical Break, i.e., rise, which ranks in the bottom 15 percent of the 190-odd pitchers who have thrown at least 100 sinkers this year. In terms of raw movement, that’s more than 30 inches of drop, which isn’t quite as crazy at 89 mph as it is at 99, but it’s enough sheer drop to make hitters miss pitches that they should ordinarily crush at that velocity, particularly in the middle and up in the zone. This is one of quite a few pitches he’s thrown where hitters gear up for a a massive uppercut but only manage to swing over the top of it and beat it into the ground in a location where one doesn’t ordinarily expect a groundball:
There a couple of factors at play here that make it clearer why Matt Blake and the Yankees pitching coordinators were interested in taking a shot on a 33-year-old with barely 100 MLB innings under his belt, only a handful of which have come in the last three seasons. Ramirez gets a healthy amount of seam-shifted wake on his sinker, giving it a bit of an extra downward push on top of what the low velocity and half-sideways spin direction already provide. The difference is that most of the pitchers who throw sinkers with the spin characteristics of his do so by throwing from a low arm slot with lots of extension, in the manner of Clay Holmes, Aaron Bummer, Yennier Cano, or, in an extreme case, a true sidearmer like Aaron Loup or Tim Hill. Ramirez, though, has a relatively conventional high-three-quarters release point, which means that the ball is actually crossing the plate at a much steeper angle than a hitter is used to seeing from that arm slot. That’s how you get a hitter to consistently swing over the top of pitches they should be either squaring up or not swinging at at all, like JJ Bleday seemed to do both times they saw each other:
That shows up in the Adjusted Vertical Approach Angle stat, which measures the steepness of a pitch’s approach relative to how high and close to the plate it’s released. When you look at that leaderboard, Ramirez shows up at the very fringes, alongside names like Holmes, Kyle Hendricks, Bryce Elder, Yonny Chirinos, and Jordan Montgomery — pitchers who have made (or are making) careers out of having a sinker that hitters simply cannot stop hitting into the ground because it comes in so much steeper than what their eyes are trained to see from. When you combine that steepness with some of the side-to-side movement that the laminar effect gives a more traditional over-the-top two-seam fastball, you have a sinker that can get hitters of both handedness out by getting lefties to swing over it in the zone and getting righties to chase it outside of the zone:
The ability to impart seam-shifted wake-inducing spin isn’t something that’s limited to his sinker, though. In what’s starting to become almost a signature of the Yankees pitching development braintrust, he’s paired it with a new sweeper that has the depth of a conventional three-quarters arm slot curveball in the low-80s and high-70s, but with a whopping 18 inches of horizontal movement that perfectly complements the combination of sink and run he get on his fastball. Go back and take a look at that sinker at the top of the page that Bleday couldn’t get on plane with. That swing makes a bit more sense when you see the sweeper at the top of the zone it was preceded by.
There’s enough raw movement on that sweeper that a lefty is going to have an intensely difficult time squaring it up in any case, because that sweet seam-shifted wake-aided movement — this is partially what differentiates a sweeper from a slider or curveball — makes it incredibly difficult for them to gauge exactly how far outside it’s going to break.
For as soft as Ramirez throws, the way that the two pitches mirror each other in shape and direction, but not depth, often gives the hitter just enough hesitation to make it impossible to get their swing on plane with the sinker in time to square it up, even when it’s over the heart of the zone.
With that sweeper in hand, Ramirez’s ability to throw a changeup to opposite-handed hitters, one that duplicates the unusual steepness of his sinker, is what makes me (and, perhaps, the Yankees) think that Ramirez is well-rounded enough to warrant keeping in close proximity to the active roster. For as good as they are against same-handed hitters, sweepers are often ineffective against opposite-handed hitters for the same reason that pitchers are sometimes hesitant to use their changeups against same-handed hitters: When you hang one, it’s a slow pitch over the plate with movement that runs straight into a hitter’s barrel. A lefty pitcher with nothing but a sinker and a sweeper is a sitting duck for righty hitters: They can see the sweeper well enough out of the hand that it’s hard to steal strikes without getting burned, and if the pitcher has nothing else to work off their fastball with, it makes it exponentially easier for the hitter to time it up and get to it out in front of the plate where they can use all of their power, no matter how steep it is.
Ramirez’s changeup might be nothing special — it’s got a middling .287 xwOBA this season, and was absolutely smashed to pieces when he used it as his primary pitch in 2021 — but it’s functional enough that it can let his sinker play to its strengths and get outs against most right-handed hitters, if perhaps not the elite ones. That sinker on the outside edge you saw earlier to get Jonah Bride to ground out was a fine pitch on its own, but the fact that Ramirez was able to goad him into taking a bad swing on a pitcher’s pitch in a hitter’s count almost certainly has something to do with the fact that these were the two pitches he saw just beforehand:
Neither JJ Bleday nor Jonah Bride are any kind of gangbusters. They’re lower-third hitters on the worst team in baseball. But most major league hitters — even good ones — are pure mistake hitters, and these are principles that will apply against any hitter in the game: If you change speeds and make it difficult for a hitter to get their timing down while also showing them pitch traits they don’t see very often, then you’re drastically decreasing the chances that the hitter will be able to capitalize on any mistakes you made.
Nick Ramirez might not be super long for this roster. He still has two option years remaining, and with Carlos Rodón’s return rapidly approaching and the rest of the bullpen more or less entrenched on MLB deals, he’ll probably be headed back down to Scranton sooner rather than later. But as the saying goes, I’ve seen enough. His signing clearly wasn’t engineered by throwing a dart a board of minor league free agents, and while he’s not a true-talent 1.93 ERA reliever (very few are), we’ll see him again, and he may very well still have a role to play somewhere down the line.