Ramirez harnessing stuff

HICKORY, N.C. – With improved control and a progressing three-pitch arsenal, right-hander Neil Ramirez has taken a sizable step forward in 2010. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the 21-year-old hurler.

Though it may not show up in the earned-run average, right-hander Neil Ramirez has been one of the most improved players in the Texas Rangers organization this season.

Ramirez began his 2009 campaign on the disabled list and was limited to just 66.1 innings in what was supposed to be his first full year at Single-A Hickory. He posted a 4.75 ERA while walking 41 and striking out 56.

A late-season mechanical change in '09 helped him improve down the stretch. Over his last five starts, he posted a 24:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings.

This season, Ramirez has built on that success and taken another sizable step forward.

The prospect is throwing more strikes this season, cutting his walk rate from 13.4% to 6.6%. He's also missing more bats, as his strikeout rate has jumped from 18.4% to 23.6%.

But the Virginia Beach native is not just throwing more strikes––he's doing it with better stuff.

Ramirez's fastball generally ranged anywhere between 88-93 mph last year, often sitting at 90-91. This year, he works between 90-96 mph.

In his most recent start against Charleston, the prospect topped out at 96 and sat in the 92-93 mph range throughout.

The 21-year-old didn't have his best curveball in that outing––in which he surrendered two unearned runs while striking out three over six innings––but his upper-70s breaker has been a key component of his 122-strikeout season, which ranks second in the South Atlantic League.

Another focus for Ramirez last season was his changeup. He had struggled to find the feel for a third pitch and spent much of the '09 campaign trying to develop it. Ramirez threw his 84-86 mph changeup a number of times in his latest start and had some success with it. As he explains below, the pitch has progressed in the second half of the season.

Now that the 6-foot-3, 185-pound pitcher is beginning to harness his stuff and mechanics, he'll need to refine his command within the strike zone. Despite the power arsenal, he has a tendency to live too far up in the zone with his fastball, leading to this summer's .282 opponent batting averager.

Still, with above-average stuff and the ability to throw strikes, Ramirez is beginning to look like the prospect the Rangers hoped they were getting when they selected him with the 44th overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft.

HD Video: Ramirez warms up in the bullpen
Ramirez strikes out a hitter

Jason Cole: Give me your thoughts on your last outing, against Charleston. I know you didn't get the victory but you threw six strong innings.

Neil Ramirez: I felt pretty good. I think I battled. I was happy with myself for not letting the error get to me and making a good pitch after that to get out of it. I felt that I was in the zone, for the most part.

The curveball wasn't there for a strike the way it has been in the past couple outings. But I was able to battle with my fastball in and out and use the changeup effectively when I had to.

Cole: You had 10 strikeouts in two of your last three starts coming into this one. Was throwing the curveball for a strike one of the primary things behind that?

Ramirez: Yeah, I think it was one of the big things. But mostly getting ahead. When I've been getting ahead of guys, I've been able to put them away with curveball, fastball, and changeup.

But the curveball for a strike is something that definitely helps me set the tone––especially the second time through the lineup, when guys are starting to get on the fastball a little bit. I'll maybe start them off backwards.

Cole: You focused on the changeup last year, but it was a bit of a struggle for you. It seemed that you were able to throw it for strikes with more consistency in your last start. How has that pitch developed this season?

Ramirez: It has come a long way. I think of all the pitches, that's the one that has come the farthest for me. The changeup––I've gotten real comfortable with it in these past couple starts. I've been throwing it to both lefties and righties, which is huge.

I've been getting some swings and misses on it from right-handers––guys see fastball out of the hand and I've been able to keep the same arm speed as the fastball. That's something that me and Brad talked about. It's kind of a feel pitch, and I've gotten comfortable with it now. I feel like I can throw it whenever I need to.

Cole: Have you messed around with the grip at all over the last year? Or have you just been refining the same one?

Ramirez: I've kept the same grip. The main thing is really focusing on throwing it the same way that I throw my fastball. The grip kind of takes away from the speed. But it's the deception of looking the same out of my hand is what I think gets guys off of it.

Cole: Looking at your numbers over the last two years, the walk totals are night and day. The walk problem is pretty much gone this year. What has led to that?

Ramirez: Last year I was working on some stuff delivery-wise and I think that was in my head more. This year, I've just been really focused on making pitches. I'm just telling myself to see my lanes when I'm out there. And that's all I see. I don't see the batter out there. I just see that lane I want to go to and where I want to put the ball. Mentally, I think I've grown a lot in that way.

Cole: How do you feel about your season in general?

Ramirez: I think it has been a good season for me. The thing I've been most happy with is that I've made every start. I've stuck with my routine no matter if I've gone out there and done good or not. There have been times where I've struggled, but every single day I'm coming in and I'm doing my work.

I'm just learning about the grind of a full season. I'm just trying to stay consistent and get better every single day. I don't want to let one start affect the next or one pitch affect the next. Just growing up as a pitcher this year has been huge for me. Not so much delivery-wise and thinking about walks––I'm thinking about going out there every time and really competing and putting my team in a chance to win.

Cole: You mentioned the delivery. Even when you're in the windup now, it looks like you're pitching out of the stretch with just a little step in there. Can you describe that and talk about what led to that adjustment?

Ramirez: Me and Brad kind of messed around with it because I was actually feeling more comfortable from the stretch. I think there is less movement there. There was a little more movement in my windup.

I was getting off-balance a little bit. I think that delivery has kind of helped me just pick my leg up––I'm staying square to the target. It's just less movement that has helped me out. That was where it stemmed from and I've gotten comfortable with it.

Cole: For the most part last season, your velocity wasn't bad but it was definitely down a tick from the past. Now that it's back up to your old levels from high school and Spokane, what do you think led to the jump?

Ramirez: I feel good. My arm feels good. I don't try to get caught up on velocity too much, but I feel like my fastball has good life behind it. I feel like I can get some guys to swing and miss on my fastball. But I think that helps with getting ahead of guys too––being able to use that fastball up in the zone. The velocity has definitely been there for me, especially these past couple starts. I feel good that I'm staying strong at the end of the year.

Cole: Even though this is your third full season in the Rangers organization, it's the first healthy full season you've had. How big has it been to stay healthy and make every start?

Ramirez: It has been huge. My level of comfortability on the mound is so much higher now than it was last year. I just hadn't had those game reps. It was almost like everything was so fast for me on the mound last year. Now this year, I feel like I'm in control of every single situation, every single pitch.

I feel like I've got it to the point of where I'm focused on every single pitch. The snowball effect isn't happening this year, like it would last year––I would make a bad pitch or maybe an error or a walk, and then it just kind of snowballed into one thing after another. I started rushing. But with the full season and getting that experience on the mound has helped me out.

Cole: They've kind of taken the reigns off you pitch count-wise, haven't they?

Ramirez: Yeah, I think I'm still around 100 right now. But innings-wise, I've made every start so I think they're just going to let me go. Hopefully maybe they'll extend the pitch count a little bit here at the end, as we hopefully get to the playoffs.

Cole: Tell me about the end of the year and your last few starts. What would you like to accomplish or improve upon?

Ramirez: Just keep working hard and keep competing every game. I want to keep that same focus every single pitch––taking it one pitch at a time. Me and Brad talk about that a lot. I've studied some guys like Roy Halladay and guys like that and what they talk about. I'm just trying to keep going and keep working hard every day. Hopefully I can give our team a chance to win every time I go out and compete for them as we get into the playoffs.

For more information on Ramirez and the Hickory Crawdads, check out the Crawdads thread on our subscriber-only message board.

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