The @Cubs recall RHP Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa; option RHP Neil Ramirez to Triple-A.
— MLBRosterMoves (@MLBRosterMoves) July 26, 2014
The Cubs sent down their best reliever today in a surprise move, and this led to a lot of reactions. Some cracked the usual jokes about the Cubs manipulating service time or vying for the top draft pick. Others speculated that this might be a move to start stretching Neil Ramirez out into a starter. And still others suggested the more mundane reason of preventing injury as the cause.
Renteria says Ramirez getting a 'blow,' no injury. Won't report to Iowa right away, will be used sparingly when he does. Likely just 10 days
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) July 26, 2014
The Cubs did everything they could to confirm this most reasonable hypothesis, but does that really make sense? After all, the Cubs are carrying 8 relievers right now to prevent this overuse. Ramirez has pitched just 28 innings in the big leagues, which does not even crack the top 150 in terms of innings by a reliever this season. On top of that, he has thrown just 2.1 innings in 3 games over the past 12 calendar days. There has to be more than overuse at play here then, right?
Perhaps not, as there are a number of reasons why Neil Ramirez is going to Iowa for a "blow." One of the main criticisms of using pitch counts and inning caps is that it treats all pitches and innings as being equal. In reality they are not, and Neil Ramirez has pitched a far greater number of high-stress innings than not.
Of the 33 games Ramirez has pitched at the big league level, 18 of them have been close and situational. 56 of the 110 opposing plate appearances fit that description as well. So the innings that Ramirez has faced have generally been high- or medium-leverage situations as well.
The other aspect that many people forget is that Neil Ramirez has not just pitched for the Chicago Cubs this year. He started the year in Iowa and racked up 7 innings over 6 games. That pushes Ramirez's totals on the year up to 35 IP over 39 games. Neither of those pushes him into the most-heavily-worked relievers in baseball category, but with a young arm that is coming off shoulder issues the previous year it becomes a bit more clear.
And what about that injury concern? Here is a game-by-game breakdown of Ramirez's velocity:
Notice the sharp drop in fastball velocity by both average and max velocity in his last outing. The drop in average velocity was nearly 3 mph and by max was over 2 mph. He has had other instances of lower fastball velocities but no decrease nearly as sharp as that last one. Velocity isn't a surefire predictor of arm injuries, but it is something to keep an eye on.
I think the timing of the move is a confluence of forces, that the sharp drop in velocity combined with a starting staff that has only one pitcher who can be counted on to deliver a quality outing each time out. And that pitcher is himself is coming off of shoulder issues that delayed the start of his season. Add that together and you get the picture for Neil Ramirez being sent down in a lost season.
The Cubs are going to be very careful with the few precious power arms they have contributing at the big league level. The bullpen could use a fresh arm as it is since starters aren't going past six innings regularly, and there is no reason to risk it with a guy whose future is as promising as Neil Ramirez.
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