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A.J. Ramos enters 2018 with a shot at being Mets’ best reliever

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Ramos was acquired in a trade with the Marlins late last season.

New York Mets v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Coming off a season in which he was traded from the Marlins to the Mets, A.J. Ramos has a shot at being the best relief pitcher in a Mets bullpen that has a solid foundation but plenty of uncertainty. And Ramos himself is coming off what was easily the worst full season of his major league career, during which he had a 3.99 ERA and 4.10 FIP, both full single-season worsts for him.

Dig a little deeper into the numbers, and Ramos gave up 1.07 home runs per nine innings, a huge increase from his 0.14 rate in 2016 and a mark that sits well above his career rate of 0.55. Very few pitchers were immune to the massive increase in home runs that were hit across baseball last year, but the jump in home run rate was particularly large for Ramos. Couple that with a 13.2% walk rate and it’s not surprising to see those ERA and FIP numbers over the course of a full season.

But if you go back before last year, the track record for Ramos was quite good. He’s almost always walked more opposing batters than you’d like, but in four full seasons with the Marlins between 2013 and 2016, he had a 2.62 ERA and 3.09 FIP with 10.3 strikeouts and 4.8 walks per nine.

Looking at his stuff, there aren’t any major red flags in terms of velocity from last year. His four-seam fastball averaged a career-low at 92.78 miles per hour, according to Brooks Baseball, but that was down just a tick from his 92.90 average in 2016. Before that, the pitch had averaged 94.22, 92.38, and 93.55 miles per hour, respectively, between 2013 and 2015. While he wasn’t throwing as hard as he used to and wouldn’t rank among the game’s elite relief pitchers in velocity, sitting just under 93 miles per hour isn’t a major problem.

What changed last year, though, and had been a trend for a while was Ramos’s pitch usage. He’s gotten more and more away from the four-seam fastball, and last year was the first in which it wasn’t his most-thrown pitch, with his slider overtaking it by a pretty substantial margin.

That trend seems understandable on the surface. In 2015 and 2016, opposing batters slugged a bit north of .400 against Ramos’s four-seam fastball while sitting in the .230s in slugging against the slider. While the fastball’s slugging against was just a bit higher last year, opponents slugged .333 against the slider. That’s still a low number on the slugging percentage scale—see Ramos’s .818 SLG against on his sinker for an extremely high example—but a significant increase over the numbers from the previous two seasons.

Whether or not the changes in Ramos’s numbers last year were an anomaly or indicative of a permanent trend remains to be seen. He’s only under control through the end of this season, and he, Jeurys Familia, and Jerry Blevins will be eligible for free agency. Ramos will earn $11 million this year, making him the fourth-highest paid player on the team. And when framing it within the Mets’ finances, Ramos will most likely earn the second-most from the team this year, with Yoenis Cespedes leading the way at $29 million, Adrian Gonzalez being paid just the league minimum by the Mets, and a huge chunk of David Wright’s $20 million salary set to be covered by an insurance policy.

If things go incredibly well for the Mets, Ramos has a shot at being the best reliever on the team. That seem possible in part because of Familia’s brutal 2017 season, one in which he was suspended, injured, and performed poorly. But with Familia having a shot at bouncing back and Blevins and Anthony Swarzak as two of his colleagues, saying that about Ramos isn’t a backhanded compliment. It’s entirely possible for him to just be one of the good relievers on the Mets and for the season to go well, but if things go the way they did in 2017 and Ramos is at least decent, the team should be able to get something back for him at the deadline.

For what it’s worth, Ramos seems like an easy guy to root for, at least according to the way he spoke of potentially living with good friend Giancarlo Stanton since both players were traded to New York teams over the past six months. Considering Ramos essentially replaced Addison Reed in the Mets’ bullpen hierarchy, it’d be preferable to have Reed, who was one of the best relievers in baseball in his time with the Mets and signed a very reasonable deal with the Twins. Maybe the Mets knew of Reed’s preference to play in the midwest way ahead of time and moved to acquire Ramos to guard against the uncertainty of the payroll situation before they got to the offseason.

The major projection systems vary a bit with Ramos for 2018. Steamer has him at a 3.99 ERA and 4.11 FIP, neither of which are particularly bold projections considering they’re a combined total of 0.01 off from what he did last year. ZiPS projects better marks, with a 3.45 ERA and 3.72 FIP, while PECOTA projects a 3.76 ERA.

Whatever the case, Ramos should be fine. The Mets have rarely succeeded when acquiring relief pitchers under general manager Sandy Alderson, but Ramos’s best years came in the relatively recent past. There’s a chance things go incredibly poorly here, but the most likely outcome seems to be that Ramos will be a solid reliever capable of pitching in important situations.