Neil Ramirez came into the 2009 season looking to continue his successes with short-season Spokane in '08, when he posted a 2.66 earned-run average and surrendered just 25 hits in 44 innings of work.
Unfortunately, the right-hander sustained an elbow injury in Spring Training, and he remained sidelined until he joined Single-A Hickory in June. Ramirez struggled out of the gates, giving up 12 earned runs on 17 hits and nine walks in 11 innings that first month.
Once Ramirez settled in, the numbers were much improved. From July through the end of the season, the 20-year-old posted a 3.74 ERA in 55.1 innings, giving up 41 hits, walking 32 and striking out 49.
Ramirez struggled to command his fastball–which ranged between 88-93 mph for much of the year, mostly sitting at 90-91–but he showed improvement as the season progressed. In his last five starts, Ramirez posted a 24:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings of work. Not only was he throwing more strikes, but he was also missing bats at a much higher rate.
Aside from fastball command, the Virginia Beach native spent much of the season focusing on the development of his changeup. For the most part, Ramirez began throwing his changeup more often than his curveball, and he began to show a solid feel for the pitch later in the year.
Ramirez has been pitching for the Surprise Advanced Instructional League team, which includes both Rangers and Royals prospects.
Jason Cole: Looking back on your whole season with Hickory, what were your thoughts on it?
Neil Ramirez: I think it was a good season for me. Obviously the results weren't what I wanted them to be, but a lot of the times in the minor leagues, it's about learning. It's about the long run, and it's not about everything happening right now.
As far as that goes, I think I learned a lot and I think I've got a good base going into next year. It was definitely a learning year for me, having to deal with the failure and not having all the success that you want. I think that prepares me well for next year.
Cole: Was that the first time ever playing baseball that you hadn't been as successful as you would've liked?
Ramirez: Yeah. It was tough because, like you said, in high school it kind of came easy. The hitters weren't as advanced obviously as they are here. That's the thing for me–just learning how to pitch and I think that's going to be a big key for me. Just not going out there and throwing. I've just got to become a smarter pitcher.
I wasn't as successful as I would've liked, but that's going to happen in pro ball. I think I can build off that, though. I'm not a guy that has always had success now–I'm a guy that knows what it's like to fail and I can deal with it, I can handle it, and I can move on from there.
Cole: Tell me about some of the things you were able to pick up and work on from the pitching coach there, Brad Holman.
Ramirez: Brad just worked on me a lot with–going back to since I signed–my direction. Staying towards the plate and getting all my energy going towards the plate and not any side-to-side movement. That has kind of been hurting me and keeping the ball up.
Just working on direction–getting my front side up instead of getting down. Putting an angle on the baseball is the key, and being able to locate the fastball. Especially in this instructional league, I've just been pounding it into my head: fastball down, fastball down. I'm just working off of that.
Cole: Were you making any adjustments with your curveball this year, or was it pretty much the same as always?
Ramirez: I didn't really make any adjustments as far as throwing it different or anything like that. I just worked a lot more on changeup this year, and I kind of got away from being so reliant on the breaking ball. I didn't throw it as much. The curveball is a feel pitch–you're going to have it some days and some days you're not going to have your best one.
But the curveball is still the same. I'm still going to throw it, but I've just got to work a little bit more on the changeup and fastball command right now. Then I'll have that curveball in the arsenal as well when I get into an 0-2 pitch or when I'm ahead of guys.
Cole: You were throwing the changeup quite a bit this year, weren't you? At least I know you were in the start I saw in Hickory.
Ramirez: Yeah, yeah. A lot of changeups. That's a big pitch that I think is going to get guys off my fastball a little bit. Fastball and curveball are two different planes–it's easy to read a curveball out of a hitter's hand. You've got to have something that is going to take them off your fastball and back them up a little bit.
I think that's why the changeup is so important for me. I think guys know that if I'm just throwing fastball-curveball, they can lay off that curveball and they know a fastball is coming. The changeup is going to give me another pitch to get hitters off it.
Cole: How much better do you feel the changeup got as the season went on, especially late in the year there?
Ramirez: I think it got a lot better. The changeup is one of those pitches where you just have to throw it to get better at it. It's just one of those things I'm going to have to practice. I think I got more comfortable with throwing it in any count–I was throwing it in some 2-0 hitter's counts, which is big because they're geared up for the fastball in those counts, and then you back something off and get them out front. I think it came around a lot as far as that goes.
Cole: Talk about instructs and working with the advanced team right now. What are some of the things you're focusing on out here right now?
Ramirez: Same thing. The same stuff I was working on during the season. Just working on that delivery–getting consistent and staying in the strike zone with my fastball. That's the big thing for me. I've just got to get my fastball down and keep it in the strike zone. And not trying to be too perfect with hitters early in the count. I want to get it in the zone early and then I can expand when I get ahead of guys. It's just all about command with me, and repeating my delivery. I think from there, that gives me a base to work off of.
Cole: This advanced league is obviously new for everybody. Since nobody knows much about it, how does the talent and level of competition compare to what you faced in the Sally League?
Ramirez: I think it's about the same or a little bit better. I know there are some High-A guys. We play with the Royals, and there are some guys that were in High-A. I think a couple of them ended up the year in the Double-A level.
So the hitters are definitely good hitters–patient hitters. They won't swing at stuff that is out of the zone early, like I said. I think I've been doing alright this instructional league with getting ahead of guys early and getting guys to swing the bat and seeing some reaction off the bat.
It has been alright. I think that is a big key. The hitters are pretty good, but it's not something that I don't think I can handle. It has been a good advanced league.
Cole: Have you gotten any action in regular instructs games, or has it just been in advanced?
Ramirez: Yeah, I pitched in a couple of instructs games. I threw an inning in a couple of them instead of a bullpen session just to get on the mound and face some hitters. But mostly it has been the advanced league.
Cole: How many times and how many innings have you thrown in the advanced league? Do you know?
Ramirez: I'm not sure the exact amount of innings. I think it has been about 10 innings. I've gotten about four or five appearances, and each time it has only been about two or three innings.
Cole: How do you feel you're pitching?
Ramirez: I feel like I'm pitching good. I feel like I've made a lot of progress in this advanced league. I'm a guy that is never going to be satisfied with anything, so I've just got to keep working and keep grinding it out.
Cole: Talk to me about your offseason. What are you going to do to prepare for 2010?
Ramirez: This offseason is going to be huge for me. Obviously there's a lot of talent in this organization and everybody wants to move up, so you've got to do something and get yourself in a position to where you're going to be ready to move up. This offseason is just pounding the weights–putting a little weight on–and making sure I'm in the best condition that I can be in when I come back for Spring Training.
And just working on that delivery constantly. If it's not throwing a baseball, it's dry towel drills and everything like that that I can do just to make sure when it comes time, that delivery is second nature for me and it's not something I have to think about.
Ramirez trying to repeat delivery
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