The Tampa Bay Rays are in the World Series, largely on the back of their prolific pitching. The Rays, the American League representative competing against Los Angeles Dodgers for baseball lore, boasted the third-best team earned run average (ERA) this year. Their power-throwing arms in the bullpen are a big reason for their success.

Before those relievers come into the game, they warm up with former Illinois State catcher Jean Ramirez ’16, who has been one of the club’s bullpen catchers since 2019. His role is much more than having his mitt peppered by warm-up tosses. The former Redbird relays information to pitchers ranging from how the ball is breaking to the scouting report on the opposing lineup.

“Certainly warming up pitchers is a part of my role, but I also talk to them about their pitches, what the ball is doing, and about different counts and scenarios,” said Ramirez, who played for the Redbirds in 2015 and 2016. “I watch video and offer as much feedback as I can provide. That’s helpful to these guys because we see what their stuff does.” 

In 91 career games at Illinois State, Ramirez sported a .265 batting average with 10 home runs, 49 RBIs, and had a .992 fielding percentage. In 2016, Ramirez was named to the Missouri Valley Conference and AFNI honor rolls. The Rays selected him in the 28th round of the 2016 draft, and he played in their farm system for three years. Tampa Bay offered him his current opportunity after the 2018 season.

“I wanted to jump on that pretty quick,” said Ramirez, who hopes to carve out his own path in the coaching profession. “It gave me the experience of being in the big leagues and understanding the staff side of the game. It all just happened unexpectedly, but it’s been amazing and incredible.”

He couldn’t have landed in a much better organization for learning. Not only have the Rays made the playoffs in each of his two years in Tampa Bay, but they are regularly cited as one of the smartest-run clubs in the game. They often contend while operating with one of the lowest payrolls. In 2020 the Rays have the game’s third-lowest payroll but find themselves in the World Series.

That’s because they have embraced analytics and have a scouting department that has thrived on finding value in overlooked players from other organizations. They have also been ahead of the curve on pitching efficiency, frequently utilizing the “opener” role and starting games with bullpen pitchers instead of a traditional starter. That means Ramirez is warming up guys at all points in the game. Not only does this progressive approach to the game keep him busy, but it has also helped him grow from a coaching standpoint.

“It helps me understand that there are so many ways to get the job done. Our analytics and advanced scouting, it’s incredible,” Ramirez said. “It’s been such a learning experience for me because it makes me value the little things.” 

Ramirez also credits his two years at Illinois State as a big stepping-stone to his current path. After transferring in as a junior, he became a team leader who got it done both on and off the field. He had an attention to detail in the classroom, which he praised faculty for encouraging. “They made you get the most out of it, and I really appreciated that out of our professors,” Ramirez said. 

Despite a professional lifestyle that has introduced him to many people across the sport, he also formed relationships at Illinois State that he says will always stand the test of time.

“As far as baseball goes, the biggest thing I took away was the feeling of family,” Ramirez said of his Redbird teammates. “That feeling of togetherness was second to none.”

For more on Ramirez’s journey from ISU to bullpen catcher for the American League champions, check out this profile of him in The Athletic. You might recognize that byline, too. Fellow Redbird alum Josh Tolentino ’17, who covered the Rays during the 2019 season, caught up with Ramirez for the piece. Tolentino is now the Miami Dolphins beat reporter for The Athletic.