If there's one thing you can say about the doldrums of the early-2000s Milwaukee Brewers, it's that they were so bad, they could take on an interesting experiment or two.
One of those experiments was Brooks Kieschnick, the part-time outfielder who saw all of 336 career plate appearances, but decided to also become a part-time pitcher as a way to extend his big league career in 2003 and 2004.
Kieschnick’s first go-around on the mound was a rocky one, with him getting hit to the tune of a 5.26 ERA in 53 innings in 2003. He kept the walks in check, but as you might expect from an outfielder trying to become a pitcher at the big league level, he struggled to strike many guys out, only tallying 39 in 53 innings. He was much more successful with the bat that season, hitting .300/.355/.614 in 76 plate appearances, including 7 home runs.
His 2004 season saw less production with the bat (.270/.324/.365 in 68 plate appearances), but better results on the mound, with a 3.77 ERA in 32 games and an ERA+ of 117.
More than a decade after the experiment made Kieschnick a part of Brewers lore, the organization is trying it again -- this time with a former prospect who seems to have hit a wall in his development as a hitter.
Nick Ramirez was a 4th round pick in 2011 out of Cal State-Fullerton. He was the Big West Player of the Year that season, hitting .285/.391/.505 with 9 home runs in 200 at-bats as the Titans' first baseman while also going a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities as the team's closer. As a lefty, he posted a 1.13 ERA on the mound that year, striking out 31 in 24 innings.
As effective as he was on the mound, the Brewers wanted him to focus on being a hitter. After getting off to a solid start in Rookie ball, his production has slowly slipped as he progressed through the system, eventually stalling out at Double-A, where many minor league careers stall.
That's not to say Ramirez has been a disaster there, but he's likely heading back to Biloxi for a third consecutive season (and his fourth straight year in Double-A -- he was a member of the last Huntsville Stars team in 2014, too). He's struggled to make contact at that level, but has still shown a decent eye and some pop, with a career Double-A line of .229/.323/.402, with 47 home runs in three seasons.
Likely seeing that Ramirez needed to do something to stand out, Biloxi pitching coach Chris Hook floated the idea of getting back on the mound halfway through last season. At age 26, Ramirez went to fall instructionals to re-learn how to pitch.
Monday, he made his first official Cactus League pitching appearance, coming over from minor league camp to pitch the final inning of the Brewers' win over Texas. Throwing in the low-90s and flashing a curveball and changeup that impressed manager Craig Counsell, Ramirez showed that he may be on to something with the switch.
Following up an appearance in last week's scrimmage against UWM in which he struck out the side, he struck out the first two Rangers he faced in the 9th inning on Monday. He told Adam McCalvy that even he's surprised by how well it's been going so far:
"Somehow my pitches got better with a five-year hiatus," Ramirez said. "I don't know how that happened, but I'm happy with how it's going.
"(The decision) wasn't hard, because I'm not losing anything," he said. "I only have stuff to gain out of this. If I can compete and get outs and contribute to a big league team winning baseball games, then that's what I'm going to do."
According to McCalvy, Ramirez is still taking grounders in the infield and swings in the batting cage, so it's not like he's letting his other skills erode while he gets back on the mound.
He’s not the only position player trying to make a switch to pitching. Former Braves/Astros/Twins outfielder Jordan Schafer is throwing pitches in camp for the St. Louis Cardinals this spring, while former top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt is doing the same for San Diego.
It's still highly unlikely Ramirez makes the team as a two-way player out of spring training, but without many lefty relievers figuring into the Brewers' bullpen mix this season, it wouldn't be a total shock to see him in Milwaukee at some point if the conversion continues to go well, even if it's in a LOOGY/extra bench bat role. At the very least, it's a fun story worth following in the early parts of the year.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference
UPDATE: It looks like Brooks is on board when it comes to helping Ramirez with a move to the mound...