Lakeland, Fla. – He was just 20 years old and in the United States for the first time, stationed, in all places, Clinton, Iowa. A native of Nicaragua, he’d played his first two pro seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League and to feel very much like a stranger in a strange land.
He was alone. He didn’t speak the language or understand the food, let alone the Iowan way of life. All he wanted to do was pitch and chase his dream of getting to the big leagues. So why was this writer from New York following him around asking him really bizarre questions?
“In the moment, I thought he was crazy,” said Erasmo Ramirez, now 30 and approaching his 10th big-league season. “I thought he was just kidding around, following me all over the place asking me stuff. I went to my teammates, like, he’s crazy. I didn’t know what was going on.”
What was going on was then-an aspiring writer named Lucas Mann was working on what eventually became a book entitled “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.”
Mann more or less embedded himself with the 2010 Clinton LumberKings Low-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners – a team whose stars were a bonus baby infielder named Nick Franklin and a quiet, shy, somewhat rotund Nicaraguan right-hander who these days in trying to win a roster spot as a non-roster invitee with the Tigers.
“I just kept answering what he kept asking,” Ramirez shrugged. “And then he came out with the book. It was pretty good, too.”
A baseball journey
Ramirez’s journey since then could warrant a sequel. He matured into a power-arm, sinker-balling starting pitcher who blossomed with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015. Then, almost randomly, he was dispatched to the bullpen. He didn’t like it at first, but he thrived in the swing-man role.
Then came a series of injuries, a trade back to Seattle, then a couple of DFA’s. In a blink, the one-time prospect was a journeyman, arm for hire.
“Before I had my kids, I was just a young kid throwing the ball good,” Ramirez said on Saturday morning. “Then all of a sudden I start getting the injuries and I start not executing and I start losing my mind about the strike zone and how to pitch.
“But after I get my little kids and my family, I start thinking how cool can it be to tell my kids that, ‘Hey, I try and did it. And I’ve never stopped.’”
He’s not likely to make the Tigers out of spring training, but he’s made a strong impression, allowing just three hits and a run with seven strikeouts in 8.2 innings. He’s made himself a viable option for later in the summer.
“He’s a valuable pitcher,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I don’t know who coined the term ‘savvy veteran,’ but that’s how he kind of comes across. He’s very trustworthy for when you have an opportunity to fit him. I can definitely see him pitching for us.”
After a misbegotten stop with the Red Sox organization in 2019 (he got up for one game), Ramirez spent the bulk of last season with the Mets, at their alternate site. He got called up in September and he allowed just one run with nine strikeouts in 14.1 innings.
“It was my confidence, my personal confidence,” Ramirez said of what clicked for him. “I was a little bit running away from contact. I was afraid to throw strikes, afraid to go inside. I was thinking too much about pitch-mix, and the more I think, the more time I’m going to make a mistake.”
In the winter of 2019, he worked on being able to manipulate his cutter to move horizontally in both directions. He mastered the ability to X-off both sides of the plate. In regaining his feel and his faith in his ability to throw all his pitches for strikes in any count, he was able to get hitters to chase and get weak contact on pitches just off the plate.
“Like don’t be afraid to go 2-0,” he said. “I know I can execute anytime, any pitch. If I show the hitter I can work around the strike zone, they can’t lock in on me. I had a pitching coach tell me, you have to learn to throw balls. Being in the zone all the time, they start swinging early and you get that damage.
“Sometimes they don’t give you a chance to throw another pitch and work the hitter. The more you work around the zone, you’ve got more chance to succeed.”
That runs counter to the message Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have preached all spring. They have touted the advantage of leverage, pitching ahead in the count. Strike one is your friend.
“But at the same time, they understand you have to throw balls, too, because hitters are getting crazy when they know you do nothing but throw strikes first pitch,” Ramirez said. “Don’t be afraid to be 1-0. That can be your best chance to get an out.”
Hinch doesn’t believe in cookie-cutter approaches, so he isn’t going to mess with what works for Ramirez.
“You can see why he makes an appearance in the big leagues every year,” Hinch said. “He’s had to reinvent himself from a young player, a starting pitcher, to now he’s a swing guy who throws a ton of strikes. He’s not a big, physical guy, so he has to create angles. He has to pitch.
“He’s kind of masterful at what he does best. Which is pound the strike zone and get the ball to move just enough off the barrel and navigate his way through different styles of hitters.”
Just need one
Ramirez opted for free agency after he was designated for assignment by the Mets. He knew, coming out of the pandemic, that his opportunities would be scarce. But he only needed one.
“I just set my mind on getting the opportunity, whether it was a big-league deal or a minor-league deal,” he said. “That’s what I told my agent. I just need a name. Give me a team and I’m going to work my butt off and execute the best I can, show up in the best shape I can.
“It paid off.”
He knows the numbers are against him in terms of being on the opening day roster. He also knows the season is six months long.
“If I get the opportunity to start with the team, then obviously I’m happy,” he said. “If I have to go back, go to minor leagues and the alternate site and continue working on my stuff, I’ve got no problem with that either.
“I’ll just be keeping myself ready for the call.”
That’s not the only call Ramirez is waiting on these days. He and his wife, who already have a 2-year-old and 4-year-old, have a third child on the way.
“That’s even more reason for me to keep throwing strikes,” he said.