Moving back to the mound saved career for Tigers reliever Nick Ramirez

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Nick Ramirez was a standout relief pitcher (16-for-16 in save situations) at Cal State-Fullerton, and the Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2011, dominating both at the plate and mound when the Brewers drafted him in the fourth round.

Detroit — When it was first broached, Nick Ramirez wasn’t thrilled about it. Maybe even a little shocked, not having really thought about the possibility.

Here was Ramirez, a slugging first baseman in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, and they were coming to him asking about switching back to pitching in the summer of 2016.

Ramirez was a standout relief pitcher (16-for-16 in save situations) at Cal State-Fullerton, and the Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2011, dominating both at the plate and mound when the Brewers drafted him in the fourth round.

But he wasn’t dominating offensively in the minor leagues.

 “I was struggling offensively,” Ramirez, 29, said this week in the Tigers’ clubhouse, remembering the time he became a full-time pitcher. “It was kind of more like a slap in the face.”

And a slap that kind of stung.

“At first it kind of hurt my ego more than anything,” Ramirez said. “I took it as I wasn’t good enough to play first base in the big leagues. So I called my agent and talked to him a little bit.”

The conversation, after Ramirez had a time to calm down and think things over, gave further allowance that this could be a good move for everyone involved

“The thing my agent told me was ‘Hey, look, there’s a number (age) that when you reach it in the minor leagues you’re considered old (and not a prospect).

“But when you pitch, there’s no age for that.”

Ramirez became a pitcher, both mentally and physically, and hasn’t looked back since.

Drafted in 2011 by the Brewers, and bouncing around the minor leagues for eight years since, will convince any baseball player to try anything that will get you to the majors.

“Once I did (make the switch to pitching), I kind of felt like it was a fresh start,” Ramirez said. “It was a kind of thing where I felt kind of closer to the big leagues than I did before.”

Not that Ramirez was a total washout as a first baseman.

Ramirez hit 96 home runs and drove in 403 runs in eight seasons. But a .242 batting average (.242/.318/.426 slash line) in 2,380 at-bats, with 748 strike outs, gave Brewers pause about how much of a prospect he was offensively.

Returning to pitching, after a brief readjustment, has worked out as well as anyone could have expected.

Ramirez threw well in the 2016 instructional league, then went to spring training and enjoyed a fine summer in the Brewers’ minor leagues.

“I hadn’t pitched since my junior (college) season, in 2011,” Ramirez said. “I kind of had to get back to my mechanics and stuff like that. Instead to just trying to throw, I had to get the feeling back of everything. But, actually, it all came back together pretty quick.”

Ramirez was 7-4 with a 1.36 ERA with two teams in 2017, in 79 1/3 innings, then was 11-3 with a 3.95 ERA in 68 innings last year.

Still, the Brewers designated Ramirez for assignment last winter, before he was  signed by the Tigers, who felt Ramirez could provide bullpen depth in the organization.

Ramirez, who relies on a sneaky fastball and effective change-up, struck out 20 in 14 1/3 innings at Erie, then 10 strikeouts in 12 innings of work in Toledo, before being recalled May 10 by the Tigers.

“It worked out,” Ramirez said, of the long journey.

There have been a limited number of players who’ve successfully made the switch from playing a position position to pitching.

Kenley Jensen (L.A. Dodgers) and Sean Doolittle (Washington) currently, and former Tigers reliever Joe Nathan, are ones most fans would know, with the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani doing both last season until an elbow injury temporarily ended his pitching career.

Anthony Gose was a former Tigers’ position player who attempted to become a pitcher, and didn’t work out.

Be it from pitching to position playing, or vice versa, Ramirez isn’t surprised so few have been successful making the switch.

“You have to commit the time to either,” Ramirez said. “It’s not easy. You have to spend all your time hitting or fielding, spend all your time doing so, and same with pitching. You have to throw as much as you can without taxing yourself.

“So, just the work load involved. And then taking care of your body for 162 (games), that’s the hard part of it.”

But forgive Ramirez if he’s a bit amped up for this weekend’s series against the New York Mets, then another National League team, the Atlanta Braves, next weekend.

Both those series are in the NL team’s park. So, the pitchers will hit.

Ramirez will be ready if called upon.

“I’ve been hitting in the batting cage, getting ready,” said Ramirez, breaking into a smile.

Tigers at Mets

First pitch: Saturday, 4:10 p.m.

TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM

Scouting report

LHP Ryan Carpenter (0-2, 13.00), Tigers: It’s been a miserable season, with 16 hits and three earned runs allowed in nine innings. The Tigers are thin on starting pitching, though, so he gets another crack.

LHP Jason Vargas (1-2, 5.92), Mets: The veteran lefty hasn’t gotten off to a great start with the Mets. In his last outing, Vargas allowed three hits and three runs in four innings, in a loss to the Brewers. Vargas has been sidelined with a hamstring strain for the last three weeks.