For years, devout sabermeticians have urged teams to eschew the traditional closer approach and return to the fireman model -- that is, a roving reliever who checks in during the game's most crucial moment (as opposed to only the ninth inning), and who is able to throw multiple innings per outing. Maybe it's too early to declare Erasmo Ramirez the game's present-day fireman, but he's the closest thing going.
Kevin Cash, whose previous distinguishing attributes were his resemblance to a meerkat and his willingness to yank starters after two times through the order, has used Ramirez like an old, old-school stopper. No reliever has recorded three-plus outs in more appearances than Ramirez has, according to Baseball-Reference, and those others with double-digit games haven't pitched in as many important situations. The table below lists those pitchers' leverage index -- a metric that take's the moment's pulse by considering the score and base-out state -- as well as a breakdown of high-, medium-, and low-leverage appearances:
|Pitcher||Team||G w/ 3+ outs||Average LI||High LI||Medium LI||Low LI|
Often the chief complaint about the fireman model is that relievers need to know when they'll enter so they can prepare correctly. Ramirez, a lifelong starter for the most part, has done well without that knowledge. He's entered in the sixth inning five times, the seventh seven times, and the eighth four times. What's more is Ramirez has entered a tied game seven times, a game with a one-run margin four times, and a game with a two-run margin another four times. The requirements for a Ramirez appearance seem to be: 1) that it's past the halfway point and 2) that the game is tight. That's it.
Ramirez is an inspired choice for this experiment, too. Though he succeeded last season as a starter, he was the obvious weak link in the rotation due to his arsenal: a high-grade changeup, solid-average fastball, and so-so breaking ball that limited his ability to work deep into games. In the bullpen, Ramirez doesn't have to worry about facing a batter two or three times. As such, he's simplified his approach a bit, going with more fastballs than in the past. So far, it's working.
That's good news for a Rays team that doesn't have the bullpen talent or depth enjoyed by many of their divisional foes. Alex Colome has done an admirable job filling in for closer Brad Boxberger (who continues to rehab from a spring abdominal injury), but Cash has slim pickings beyond those two. Enny Romero remains a work in progress, and Xavier Cedeno and Ryan Webb are both more middle-relief types than late-inning fixtures. Cash's other options are Steve Geltz -- who has allowed six home runs in 15 innings -- and Dana Eveland -- whose continued employment is as mysterious as Patience Worth. It's fair, then, to write that the Rays would be in a far worse position than their .500 record were it not for Ramirez.
But Ramirez's contributions to a mediocre team aren't what makes him worth watching -- rather, it's his potential contributions to the game as a model of what the modern-day reliever could be.