When Will We See Heliot in SF?

Hope springing eternally brings us back to the annual question

Say, have you noticed that Heliot Ramos has been having a sorta alright spring so far? There’s a lot going on so you may have overlooked it, probably not much talk being made of Heliot so far.

Whoa there! Au contraire, Roger! Maybe I should have done a quick Twitter search before writing that lede because I’m now seeing that, in fact, there’s been quite a LOT of chatter going on this spring as to when we might see Heliot in a real, live, regular season Giants lineup for the first time. And every massive dinger driven into the high desert air is just amping up anticipation even more. The shot Ramos hit on Tuesday had me dreaming of convincing Nolan Ryan to make a comeback with the Mariners!"

That’s ….. probably not going to happen! But let’s get to the hot topic du jour. When will we see Heliot’s highly anticipated big league debut?

Let’s first caveat — and if you know me, you know I don’t travel anywhere without a backpack full of caveats — that it’s dumb to get too excited about anything that happens in spring training games. The level of competition is all over the map, the level of effort is equally up and down. Veterans are just trying to build up armstrength and stamina. The sky, the wind, the sun, every element contributes to an overall weirdness of play that covers all of spring training in a patina of languid indifference.

We know this. We all know this. We know that getting overly excited about this…

leads to the emotional equivalent of this…

Baseball is hard — harder than it looks in spring, or else Brandon Belt would have rewritten the record books several times over by now. And just as there’s no particular reason to get concerned over young phenom Marco Luciano’s spring of lessons learned, it’s a good idea not to start a Heliot Ramos All Star Write In campaign based on his March at bats.

That said, I am very high on Ramos’ potential and as I said to Marc Delucchi in my most recent podcast (while defending Ramos against Marc’s scurrilously low #4 ranking!), I think Ramos isn’t that far away from being a 25-30 HR major leaguer and that future is coming more and more into sharp focus. Personally, I’d place odds on Ramos playing at a major league All Star level before anyone else currently in the system. However, that 25 HR future isn’t happening quite yet.

The Giants have a deep, competitive, yee gads strong even(!) group of OF on their big league roster and Heliot Ramos has played exactly 25 games above A ball thus far in his career (of course, The Thrill had never played any!). So let’s take it as a given that the Giants are going to want to see him get more development time while they sort out the playing time of the talented group of guys they already have on hand.

Still, the question remains: if not now, then when? Even before Ramos got into a spring game he was in the news this winter when Zaidi told reporters that he’d been hurt by the loss of the 2020 minor league season more than anybody else and had been on a trajectory to make his debut last season. That comment very clearly laid the groundwork for an expectation that Ramos could regain that trajectory and make his debut sometime in the upcoming season.

So, when might that happen? Last year, when Farhan Zaidi was answering perpetual questions regarding Joey Bart making the team, he told SF Chronicle’s John Shea this:

You look at guys like Mookie Betts and Mike Trout and those guys had 500-600 at bats in AA/AAA. I think back to when I was in LA, some of the call-up decisions that we faced with guys like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, those guys had 600-700 at bats at the AA and AAA level before we called them up, and even at that point we were wondering if it was the right time…And I’ve heard the rallying cry of “What do we have to lose?” Well what we have to lose is putting Joey Bart on a career path that doesn’t allow him to get the most out of his ability. What we have to lose is calling him up a little too early, having him struggle, [and] having that impact his confidence. And, you know, that’s the last thing we want to do.

Maybe 600 was a slight exaggeration, but, at the time, I noted that Zaidi was pretty close with most of those guys. Mike Trout was up in the majors at 19, but not before he had 412 PA in AA. He got an extra 111 in the Arizona Fall League that same year after a brief major league debut. Betts split the year of his major league call-up between AA and AAA, getting 464 PA between the two levels. Both Seager (550 PA between AA/AAA the year of his call-up) and Bellinger (465 PA in AA followed by 77 in AAA) fine-tuned their skills with reasonably prolonged stints in the upper levels before making their debuts. It’s important to take those steps, even if a player takes them at something of a run.

Still, the total unknown to that equation is what the conversion ratio is for time spent at the Alternate Site in 2019. The White Sox 2019 1st round pick Andrew Vaughn played just 23 games in Low-A Sally and 29 more in High-A Carolina League that year. One summer spent at the Alternate Site later Vaughn is expected to be the White Sox regular DH starting on Opening Day. Of course, Vaughn, who starred at Cal-Berkeley and was the #3 overall pick, might not have had much developing to do when the ChiSox got their hands on him to begin with. Still, this is a gamble that suggests, in their mind, at least, the Alternate Site work did give Vaughn the equivalent of whatever upper minors work he needed to get under his belt.

I’d anticipate the Giants being much more conservative than that with Ramos. In part, as mentioned above, because their OF setup is already fairly deep and interesting. But also, to be frank, because the 2020 experience with Joey Bart might well make them a little gun shy about making another aggressive big league promotion with a top prospect. A team that is building towards the future can’t undergo too many false starts from prospects who are expected to be major building blocks.

We can’t know exactly what progress Ramos made in 2020 in Sacramento. In 2019, he showed tremendous growth in pitch selection while at San Jose. While he still struck out a good bit (25% has been the standard for much of his career), his walk rate boosted up nearly 50% higher than the previous year in Augusta. More importantly, being more discerning at the plate helped boost his power numbers up significantly. His Isolated Slugging went from .151 up to .194 between Augusta and San Jose and he began showing significant off-field power in the California League.

He was still susceptible to a good slider though and frequently swung through breaking pitches. As Josh Norris reported on my podcast last fall, Ramos made tremendous growth at defending against sliders at the Alternate Site, and now the growth needed from him is the mental chess match against the pitcher — understanding how they sequence pitches to set batters up, and devising his own game theory strategies to combat his adversaries. The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly added a fascinating element to Ramos’ Alternate Site work last week. Kyle Haines told Baggarly that he spent time almost daily with Ramos last summer dissecting at bats — from Ramos’ minor league past and from Joey Bart’s major league struggles in 2020. The pair would watch video on individual at bats and talk through each pitch, each decision — is that a pitch you want to swing at? Should you be taking this? What are you thinking going into the pitch?

We’ve already heard Ramos talk about the mental side of his at bats in the spring — thinking that the Angels would work him away after his first home run off Sean Doolittle and looking in that zone for something he could drive to the other field. Clearly, he’s made progress here even from the player I saw in his first few days at Double-A who often looked overmatched by the thought process of upper minors arms. In the first few days at the higher level (and again later that fall in the Arizona Fall League), Ramos frequently looked confused and frustrated, behind on fastballs and out in front of secondaries as he looked to be guessing often and guessing wrong most times.

His work in Sacramento last summer against major league quality arms (like Shaun Anderson, Conner Menez, or Rico Garcia) and his daily learning sessions with Haines have surely moved him up the learning curve. But how far, exactly? How quickly can the classroom sessions translate into technical expertise? Those are the questions the Giants will want some answers to.

The front office has said that they’ll be conservative with placements. That suggests that Ramos spends Opening Day on May the 4th at the Diamond in Richmond. If that’s the case, I’d guess that they’ll be looking for one good hot spurt — maybe 100 or 150 strong plate appearances — before boosting Ramos up to the penultimate stop in Sacramento. Once there, the ideal might be to get him another 300 PA in Triple-A to really see if the lessons from the Alternate Site are being successfully put into practice.

Once they get him up to ~400 PA then I’d say things become context based. Injuries always play a huge role in big league promotions — it was an April groin strain to Joc Pederson that led to Bellinger’s big league debut with the Dodgers. And, of course, there’s always the issue of Ramos’ health as well. Does his progress get delayed again by a soft muscle strain or other minor but annoying irritation.

Beyond that, questions that could determine when the Giants reach down for Ramos involve the team’s record — are they playing competitive ball with the team they have on the field? Are players moved at the trade deadline? Are they close but could use another spark? Has a trouble spot in the OF rotation developed either offensively or defensively. The final promotion is always contextually-based more than anything else.

In a normal season all of the above might put Ramos online to make a debut somewhere in July if all went well. As with every other aspect of our lives, however, normal has long since taken the bus. With the scheduled May start for the minors, Ramos might not get to 400 PA until nearly the end of August, and then he’d be looking at a September cup o’ coffee debut. Hardly enough to get his feet wet before hopefully battling for a starting spot next spring.

Would the Giants like to put Ramos in position to take a shorter path before this year is done? If so, they might choose to send him straight to Sacramento to start the year. In his final weeks in Richmond he was already showing adjustments. Perhaps the Alternate Site work does take the place of another 150 PA in the Eastern League and they set Ramos up with an opportunity to go out of his gourd in the PCL and force his way to an early call up — June, July? — if things fall out the right way.

My guess is that they’re cautiously hopeful, but they want him to get the at bats he needs without the pressure of “when’s he coming up” chatter. If so, an opening month in Richmond makes the most sense. It puts him on track to get his development in, while also getting him to Sacramento by mid-June.

And from there…. things can happen. Find us a Hall of Famer to throw him in against and let the strong man go to work: