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Cards Take a Look at Tyson Ross: Faded Starter Or A Super Reliever, Waiting to Happen?

The Cardinals are taking a low-cost, low-risk look at veteran RH starting pitcher Tyson Ross.  And it makes sense for the most obvious of reasons: there is nothing to lose but a lot to gain if Ross can be rehabbed at age 31.

There’s something to build on. But there’s also a lot of work to do.

The best way to explain it is to show you the stats from his first 15 starts of the season. Followed by the stats from his last seven starts for San Diego … seven starts that frankly were so bad, the Padres put Ross on waivers.

15 starts …. 7 starts

Innings:  89 … 34.1

ERA:  3.34 … 7.34

FIP:  3.67 … 6.83

HR Rate:  0.81 per 9 innings … 2.10 per 9 innings.

Strikeout rate: 23% … 13.7%

Strikeouts per 9 innings:  8.6 … 5.7

Walk rate:  8.7% … 12.4%

Walks per 9 innings: 3.2 … 5.2

Contact rate: 78% … 83.3%

Contact rate on strikes:  89.4% … 92.5%

Swinging strike rate: 9.6% …

“Chase” rate: 32% … 25.7%

1st-pitch strikes: 58% … 54.7%

Average Game Score: 56 … 36 (anything above 50 is good.)

So, what happened?

At the risk of oversimplifying this, here’s the basic problem: Ross cannot locate his four-seam fastball, cannot throw it for strikes, doesn’t get many swings and misses. And because the Ross fastball is more liability than asset, he’s relying on his slider to the point of becoming predictable. Ross also throws a cutter but it’s been a terrible pitch for him, with opponents going off on the cutter for a .341 average and .636 slug.

The Cardinals obviously see something in Ross that compels them to believe he’s salvageable. And there are some good things to build on; Ross generally has been tough on RH batters this season. So pitching coach Mike Maddux will go to the video, see what he can find, and begin the Ross rehabilitation project.

Here are a few things I noticed in my deep dive into the Ross data at Inside Edge:

  • Ross has thrown his fastball for a strike just 57.7% of the time this season, lowest among  qualified MLB starting pitchers. And that includes the second-lowest strike rate (54.1%) on inside fastballs.
  • Opponents have a miss rate of just 11.1% against Ross on fastballs this season; sixth worst among MLB qualifying starters. And opponents’ line-drive rate of 28.8% on the Ross fastball is the fifth highest against any qualifying starter.
  • Because of the blah fastball, Ross has thrown the slider at a higher rate (44.1%) than any qualifying MLB starter this season. For context, the overall major-league percentage of sliders thrown by starting pitchers is 21.5 percent.
  • When the first batter in an inning steps in to face Ross, he doesn’t have to guess what’s coming. That’s because Ross has thrown his slider 44% of the time against the first batter faced in the inning this season; that’s the highest among  qualified starters and high above the MLB average of 19.5%
  • More predictability: Ross has thrown sliders on 41.5% of his in-zone pitches this season; that’s tied for highest among  qualified starters. The MLB average if 19.1%.
  • Ross has thrown his slider 35.7% of the time on the first pitch of an at-bat this season — highest among qualifying starters and more than double the league rate of 17.4%.
  • Late innings? Here comes the slider. Ross has thrown it 48% of the time in late innings this season, second highest rate by a starter.
  • Two-strike counts? Yes, you guessed it: Ross has thrown his slider 55.1% of the time on two strikes this season; that’s fourth highest among  qualified starters. League average: 27.5%

Here’s the thing … the slider was an effective pitch earlier in the season, over the course of his first 15 starts. But over the last seven starts, in at-bats that end with Ross throwing a slider, he’s allowed  a .296 batting average and .593 slugging percentage. RH batters have have a .600 slug against the slider during this stretch; LH batters are slugging .586.

The four-seam fastball has been a much better pitch for Ross vs. right-handed batters but over the last seven starts he’s thrown it only 28% of the time compared to 44% sliders.

And Ross has all but abandoned his sinker when facing LH batters; earlier in his career the sinker was a nice weapon for Ross against left-handed hitters.

It’s difficult to imagine how Ross can reverse his decline unless he reestablishes his four-seam fastball and sinker. And Ross will have to alter his pitching patterns because hitters know when the slider is coming, it isn’t as good as it used to be, and they’re waiting for it to kill it.

So, what’s the plan for Ross?

— Ross could replace John Gant in the rotation for Wednesday’s start at Miami, with Gant heading to the STL bullpen,

— Ross could replace Austin Gomber in Gomber’s next scheduled start, Friday at Kansas City, with Gomber going back to the bullpen.

— If Luke Weaver (4.75 ERA) can’t pull it together, he may be handed a ticket to Memphis. Maybe Ross would take Weaver’s place.

— Or Ross could pitch in relief for a while.

Don’t be surprised if Ross gets assigned to the bullpen. Even though, as Jen Langosch pointed out at MLB.com, Ross has more career starts (134) than the Cardinals’ current rotation combined.

But a relief role could make sense because of apparent stamina issues. In 2018 Ross has been strong early in games, and weakens as the lineup turns over.

I can only show you through the numbers:

1st time through lineup:  2.59 ERA … .170 average … .284 OBP … .308 slug… 28.6% strikeout rate.

2nd time through lineup: 4.47 ERA … .258 average….323 OBP….394 slug … 16.4% strikeout rate.

3rd time through lineup:  7.62 ERA… .303 average … .380 OBP … .557 slug … .16.1% strikeout rate.

That’s glaring. However, to be honest, his “first time through” numbers over his last seven starts are dismal. If Ross continues to pitch poorly — in all areas — he won’t be around for long.

One more thing on this idea — Ross in relief — and it’s tantalizing.

While pitching well over his first 15 starts of 2018 season, Ross was utterly dominant when taking on a lineup for the first time through during a game. Facing 135 batters in first-time-through situations, Ross had an 0.76 ERA with a strikeout rate of 32%. Hitters batted .124 against Ross with a .216 OBP and .200 slug. That’s genuine nastiness.

Think of Bud Norris.  He made a successful conversion from starting to relieving and extended his career. He’s done a fantastic job as the Cardinals’ closer this season. In 2014, his final season as a full-time starting pitcher, Norris had a mundane strikeout rate of 20%. Since the start of the 2015 season, Norris has a 27% strikeout rate as a reliever and a 19%  rate as a starter. This year, pitching exclusively out of the Cards’ bullpen, Norris has a strikeout rate of 31%. He struck out hitters 30% of the time last year for the Angels when working in relief.

So the Norris example is illustrative.

But can Ross recover his form from the first two-plus months of this season? If so, Ross can do a stout job in relief, the Cardinals can minimize disruption to the pitching staff when starting pitchers Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha return from the DL.

Ross is an interesting case. He’s a bit of a puzzle. But perhaps the Cardinals and pitching coach Mike Maddux can find a way for Ross to fit effectively.  It’s worth a try.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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