What Nick Ramirez did on June 13 is exactly what the Milwaukee Brewers dreamed up when they asked the power-hitting first baseman to give his bat a rest and see what he could do on the mound.
Give the involved parties a dose of truth serum, however, and it’s not likely any of them could have predicted this kind of performance — at least not 25 games into his transition as a pitcher after spending the previous six seasons exclusively as a hitter.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder did everything in the Biloxi Shuckers’ 5-2 win over the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Pitching three scoreless innings and earning the win would have been enough to get excited about, but Ramirez also went 2-for-2 at the plate with a crucial grand slam.
“Nick Ramirez, are you kidding me?” shouted Shuckers play-by-play man Chris Harris as Ramirez rounded the bases.
Less than a week after the dual performance, the southpaw’s phone rang. It was manager Mike Guerrero.
“I knew I was either going to Triple-A or the all-star game,” Ramirez said. The first option would have been nice, but Ramirez was a late addition to Tuesday’s Southern League All-Star game, hosted by the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. It marks his fourth all-star honor in seven seasons, but his first as a pitcher.
Not a bad reward for a guy who was not all too thrilled when the Brewers originally asked him to make the switch late in the 2016 season.
“When they first brought it to my attention I was upset. I was not happy about it. I called my agent and talked to Scott Boras that night. He was the one who pretty much told me, ‘look, at the end of the day would you be upset pitching in the big leagues?’ I said ‘no’ and he said ‘all right, there’s your answer. I’ve seen you pitch in college, you’re a very talented athlete and you can contribute on both sides of the baseball.’
“I think I just took it as, if this is a quicker way for me to get to the big leagues then why waste time? Now looking at it I think I should have signed as a pitcher.”
Looking the part
Ramirez said he initially felt like “a position player throwing,” but that’s certainly not the case anymore.
Heading into the all-star break, Ramirez boasts a 1.47 ERA and 4-1 record with 23 strikeouts and a 1.28 WHIP in 36 2/3 innings.
“Nick has obviously done very well,” Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan told the Sun Herald in an email. “He doesn’t look like a converted guy, and that may be the highest compliment. He looks the part, and shows an excellent feel for pitching that belies his time away from the mound.”
Ramirez has seen the greatest improvement over the last 14 1/3 innings. Walks plagued Ramirez early on, but since a three-walk performance on May 22 against Chattanooga, the left-hander has rebounded to surrender just two free passes. Not coincidentally, he’s only allowed one earned run during the same seven-appearance stretch.
“(Guerrero) did tell me he wanted me to challenge hitters because I have good stuff,” Ramirez said. “I feel like ever since then I’ve been attacking the strike zone, more here’s my stuff, hit it; rather than I’m going to make you miss my stuff.”
Ramirez mixes a fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup and has seen his velocity ramp up to 89-93, an inexplicable improvement from his college velocity of 85-88, he said.
“I have no idea how I’m throwing up 93. In instructs I threw up a 95 — I have no idea, honestly,” he said. “Same mechanics. I think it’s just four or five years of getting stronger and using my body to throw.
“It’s nice to have that in the back pocket now.”
Objective No. 1 is to be a competent left-handed reliever. Well on his way with the first goal, Ramirez is making a strong case to be a rare two-way guy in pro ball.
Japanese star Shohei Otani is slowly becoming a household name among baseball fans stateside with his seemingly legitimate potential of being a two-way player. Colleges commonly have two-way guys — like Ramirez — but doing it at the pro level is a whole different beast, which is why Otani has captured the imaginations of many.
The Brewers had success in 2003-2004 deploying Brooks Kieschnick, a former first round pick out of Texas, as both an outfielder and reliever.
Could Ramirez be the Brewers’ next chance at a situational two-way guy?
Although his at-bats have been limited in 2017 while he focuses on pitching, Ramirez has made the most of his opportunities. He’s currently hitting .33 (4-for-12) with three runs, two homers, six RBIs and four walks.
“There is clearly work to be done by Nick. But he has shown excellent commitment to the transition and has put in the work needed to get to this point and we are confident that he will continue to have success,” Flanagan said. “Nick has a power bat from the left side, he can defend at first base, and he now has had success on the mound as a left-handed pitcher.”
With Ramirez’s success the question begs to be answered: Is there a place for a two-way player in Major League Baseball? A handful of players have flamed out as a pitcher or batter only to extend their careers as the other. Even fewer have provided staying power as a true two-way player.
So, is there a place in the MLB for a two-way guy or is it all just a fantasy?
“There is absolutely a place in the big leagues for a two-way player,” Flanagan said. “It has to be the right player of course, but the versatility that a successful two-way player could provide would be very valuable.
“Nick is continuing to work hard to try to become that player.”