Through the first half of the minor league season, the Texas Rangers have had plenty of excellent story lines down on the farm. Top infield prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt have been phenomenal at Double-A Frisco. Justin Grimm, who was drafted just two years ago, already has a major league victory under his belt. Cody Buckel has ascended to Double-A at 20 years of age. And the list goes on.
Among the few disappointments thus far has been Triple-A Round Rock hurler Neil Ramirez
, who had a breakout campaign of his own in 2011.
Ramirez opened last season with High-A Myrtle Beach by striking out nine batters in 4.2 scoreless innings. His next start came at Triple-A Round Rock, where he filled in for an ill Eric Hurley.
What was initially supposed to be a spot-start quickly turned into a full-time Triple-A assignment. Ramirez forced the issue by throwing 50 of his 75 pitches for a strike in six scoreless innings against a talented Omaha lineup. The stuff was even more impressive. In that outing, Ramirez fired his fastball at 92-94 mph early in counts while recording all five of his strikeouts on heaters between 94-96 mph. He touched as high as 97 in the game.
Ramirez commanded his plus to plus-plus fastball well, and he did so with two plus secondary pitches––a big breaking curveball and a mid-80s changeup.
As it turned out, the 2011 season wasn't all smooth sailing for Ramirez. He battled shoulder tightness and soreness for part of the year, limiting him to 98 total innings. But he also posted a 3.12 earned-run average while yielding only 77 hits and striking out 119. Ramirez finished the season as one of the top prospects in the Rangers' organization.
That makes Ramirez's current 7.66 ERA through 15 Triple-A starts––the highest of any starting pitcher in the Pacific Coast League––all the more surprising.
Coming into spring training in March, Ramirez looked to stay healthy and take the next step forward––perhaps to the major leagues.
The prospect had an unspectacular, though certainly not disastrous, camp while working on new mechanics. He aimed to avoid the shoulder issues that limited him in 2011.
"I'm really just trying to get my legs more involved in my pitching," Ramirez said during spring training. "I think that a lot of times when guys have shoulder problems, you see a lot of arm deliveries and not whole body type things. I'm just trying to incorporate the whole body, have good timing, be athletic, and obviously be able to repeat my mechanics."
Ramirez appeared to be showing progress early in the regular season. His stuff gradually improved from spring training. He also threw strikes and got ahead in counts more frequently, as he did a better job of repeating his mechanics. Through four starts, he yielded five runs on 15 hits in 21 innings, walking four and striking out 20.
Then, on April 28, Ramirez threw 55 pitches (25 strikes) in the first inning against the Oklahoma City Redhawks. The outing began a string of struggles during which he surrendered at least six runs in seven of 10 starts.
Facing Oklahoma City once again on June 14, the Virginia Beach native surrendered seven runs (six earned) on a season-high nine hits in 5.2 innings. He walked two and struck out three while plunking one and uncorking three wild pitches. The start raised Ramirez's ERA to 8.02.
Perhaps the lone positive of the night was that Ramirez's velocity ticked up a bit. After throwing his fastball in the upper-80s, low-90s for much of the previous two months, he sat between 91-93 mph and touched 94 against the RedHawks. The velocity still wasn't quite close to last year's elite level, but it was above average.
"(The velocity) is starting to come back," Ramirez said after the June 14 start. "For whatever reason, it kind of wasn't there. One of the things (Round Rock pitching coach) Terry Clark talked about is getting it going a little earlier in the game. I was trying to reserve a little bit, but it has actually felt better by getting it going. I'm finding out that I still have something in the tank for the later innings."
When Ramirez threw six shutout innings against Omaha on April 17, he worked at 89-93 mph in the early innings before suddenly flashing 94-95 mph on the radar gun late. But aside from early in the season, that type of velocity hadn't been there until his last two starts.
In the June 14 start, Ramirez also had some success with his slider––a pitch he'd initially picked up in spring training but temporarily shelved after running into some shoulder soreness.
He used the slider as his primary breaking ball against OKC, throwing it anywhere between 82-88 mph. While the offering was inconsistent, it showed plenty of promise with the occasional sharp, late break. At times, it looked more like a true slider with long break and good tilt. And at others, it had more cutting action in the upper-80s with just slight tilt.
"I worked on the slider earlier in the year, and my arm hadn't really come around yet," Ramirez said. "These past couple starts, my arm has started to feel better. Me and Terry Clark just talked about incorporating that again––having an extra pitch in the arsenal to get guys off my fastball a little bit."
Ramirez says he prefers the harder, shorter cutting action when throwing his slider to lefties but likes the longer break against right-handed hitters.
"Sometimes, especially to a lefty, I try to get more of a cutter action––get up under the hands," he said. "To righties, if I'm trying to put guys away, I try to have a little bit more depth to it.
"I'm not really at the point now where I can add or subtract yet, but I feel like that'll be something in the future. I'll be able to have a little bit more bite or a little more cutting action at times."
Unfortunately for Ramirez, that's about where the positives from the start ended.
While the 23-year-old is flashing a promising slider, his curveball has taken a serious step backward. What was a plus sharp-breaking hammer last season looked like a well below-average pitch against OKC. The pitch had long-but-loopy break when thrown at 73-74 mph. When he threw it harder––at 78-80 mph––it lost all depth and hung up in the zone. One scout in attendance said he put a 60 grade on Ramirez's curveball after watching him last season. This year, he called it a "fringe 40."
After Ramirez surrendered a three-run homer on a hanging 80 mph curve in the second inning, he practically ditched it the remainder of the game in favor of his slider.
"The curveball has kind of just been hit or miss," he said. "I thought today, the slider had a little better break, and I was able to get it down better. After giving up that home run to Brandon Barnes, I just kind of said, ‘You know what? I'll throw that pitch for a strike.' I put guys away with the slider, for the most part."
The former first-round pick says he's been struggling to find the feel for his curveball all season, but he's working to get it back.
"The breaking ball hasn't really been working all year," he said. "It was actually better last start than it has been. Today it kind of went away on me again.
"I've been working on it and working on it. It's one of those things. I'm not really sure––it hasn't come along. There are flashes in the bullpen where it's really good, and I just haven't been able to take it into the game. I've got to keep working on it, and hopefully it will come along.
"I just haven't had the consistent slot and arm speed with the curveball."
Perhaps the root issue of Ramirez's Triple-A struggles comes from the arm slot––particularly the consistency of it. In the June 14 start, Ramirez had lots of trouble repeating his arm slot from pitch to pitch. The result was highly inconsistent command of all four offerings. He had trouble spotting his fastball, his curveball was often hanging up in the zone, and while he threw a few nice mid-80s changeups with excellent arm speed, a number of them were spiked in the dirt.
When Ramirez had issues repeating his mechanics in spring training, he said his lower and upper body were out of sync. Those problems, in addition to the varying arm slot, have returned since the early-season success.
"One of the things is disengaging from the rubber early," he said. "Instead of having that drive at the end, I was kind of disengaging––kind of jumping a little bit. I think that might have been causing the ball to stay up.
"Also, the stride length has been one of the things. I'm trying to get out in front a little bit more. I'm really trying to get everything in sync. That has been one of the issues."
The Rangers recently began having their Triple-A pitchers watch video of their outing the day after they pitch. It's a practice that's designed to not only help hurlers learn about pitch sequencing and location, but also to analyze their own mechanics.
"(The video) is one thing we added just to see quality pitches, mechanics, and what I need to work on," the righty said. "It has been really helpful, I feel like. Obviously the results haven't been there, but being able to see my mechanics has really helped out a lot.
"There are some things I noticed last time out that we've been trying to work on. I wasn't really trying to drive through the pitch and was instead coming off it. I think it has helped out, definitely."
The mechanical inconsistencies, varying velocity, and struggles with the curveball have all helped lead to Ramirez's current 7.66 ERA with the Express.
"Last year, I don't think you could find a guy who liked him more than I did," said another scout in attendance on June 14. "But he doesn't look like the same pitcher. He doesn't look like the same person."
While Ramirez was impressive in his post-start interview, detailing both the positives and negatives of his outing while touching on what he must improve, his body language and presence on the mound were telling.
When making his Triple-A debut in 2011, Ramirez "carried himself and pitched like he owned the stadium," remarked yet another scout. He had excellent rhythm, working quickly throughout the game. He attacked hitters with the confidence of a major league veteran. The impressive mound presence got glowing reviews from his manager.
"He was unreal," Round Rock skipper Bobby Jones said last April. "He went out there just like he's been in Triple-A his whole life."
On June 14, Ramirez didn't pitch with the same rhythm. He worked a bit slower, his shoulders were slumped, and he appeared visibly disappointed every time a grounder got through a hole or a defensive play wasn't made. Things that wouldn't openly bother most pitchers were clearly getting to Ramirez––a sign that the two-month Triple-A slump is weighing on him.
The general consensus in the scout section behind home plate was that, while Ramirez still shows signs of good stuff, he'll need to pitch at a lower level to regain confidence and work on his issues without putting so much pressure on himself.
On the plus side, there were more positive signs in Ramirez's most recent start. Working 6.2 innings, he surrendered three runs on two hits while walking two and fanning a season-high eight. His velocity stayed up––in the 91-94 mph range––and he had even more success with his slider.
Hope isn't lost yet, but there's lots of work to be done.
At the end of the day, Ramirez says he knows what he must improve. But he also believes it doesn't all boil down to mechanics––he just hasn't been executing the pitches.
"It's mechanical and just learning how to set guys up and make better pitches," he said. "I think, for the most part, the times I've gotten hit––I've just been making bad pitches. You can talk about mechanics all you want to, but it comes down to going out there and executing the game plan."
ROUND ROCK, Texas – After entering the season as one of the top prospects in the Texas Rangers' system, Neil Ramirez has struggled at Triple-A to the tune of a 7.66 ERA in 15 starts. Lone Star Dugout takes a closer look at what's leading to the troubles.
Lone Star Dugout looks at what's leading to Neil Ramirez's surprising Triple-A struggles