The Dodgers are now back to having as many wins as losses. That’s not anything amazing — it has them tied with the Pirates — but as recently as May 16, the Dodgers were 16-26. Their most recent win was a five-run decision in Pittsburgh. Leading the way was Ross Stripling, who got the start and spun five shutout innings. He didn’t walk a batter, and he struck out seven. Back in March, the Dodgers wouldn’t have imagined they’d be here. Stripling’s start, though, was a representative one.
I’ve been on something of a Dodgers theme lately. That’s a coincidence, but then, the Dodgers’ early story is compelling. They haven’t gotten much from their supposed best players, and they’ve been lifted by a handful of surprises. The other day, I wrote about the surprising Max Muncy. Tuesday, I wrote about the surprising Matt Kemp. Now it’s time to write about the surprising Ross Stripling. When I woke up yesterday, Kemp was the Dodgers’ team leader in WAR. Stripling has now taken over the spot. Not bad for someone expected to pitch out of the bullpen.
Let me give you a frame of reference. Clayton Kershaw was last healthy and a regular part of the Dodgers’ rotation on May 1. Through May 1, the Dodgers’ rotation ranked seventh in ERA, second in FIP, and fourth in xFIP. Since May 2, the rotation has ranked seventh in ERA, third in FIP, and second in xFIP. You’d think it would be a big problem to be without perhaps the best starter in the world. Of course, the Dodgers would like to have perhaps the best starter in the world. But for now, they’re thriving without him. Stripling is the biggest reason why.
Stripling made his first start of the season on April 30. Since May 6, he’s taken six regular turns. He’s been forced into the rotation because of various injury problems, but overall, he hasn’t pitched like an emergency fill-in. He’s pitched like…you know how Max Scherzer just recorded his second career immaculate inning? You know how Max Scherzer is at the top of his game? Stripling’s been close to that. No one in their right mind would ever take Ross Stripling over Max Scherzer, but just look at this plot for 2018. Behold Stripling’s percentile ranks as a starter.
In terms of just throwing strikes, Stripling ranks second. He ranks first when it comes to first-pitch strikes. By K-BB%, he’s third. By xFIP-, he’s first. He’s even in first by hard-hit rate. Stripling doesn’t have a long track record of this, and his longest start has gone seven innings. He’s only once exceeded 100 pitches. But, ordinarily, you expect a pitcher’s performance to decline when he moves out from the bullpen. Stripling has been better than the Dodgers ever could’ve imagined. Along with Walker Buehler, he’s saved what might otherwise be a rotation in tatters.
Back in 2016, Stripling threw 75.2 innings as a starter. He recorded 55 strikeouts, with 23 walks. In just 38 innings as a starter in 2018, he’s already recorded 49 strikeouts, with five walks. One of those walks was intentional. He’s nearly caught his previous strikeout total, in half the innings thrown. Suffice to say, Stripling has turned it on, and, let me prepare you for the following table.
I wanted to establish some kind of historical context. At FanGraphs, we have splits available going back to 2002, so I searched for the best months since 2002, with a minimum of 25 innings thrown. I have a sample numbering greater than 11,000 pitcher-months. Now, these are calendar months, so I’ll be focusing on Stripling’s May, which excludes his five shutout innings in Pittsburgh. So be it. My stat of choice is something I’ll call “Combo-“. I added up each pitcher’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and then I divided by three. Then I divided that number by the league average, and finally multiplied by 100. For Stripling’s May, I find a Combo- of 34. Here are the top 20 pitcher-months I found, and in the final column, you see each pitcher’s season WAR per 200 innings.
That’s Stripling’s May there, in 11th place. Obviously, this measure isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t give pitchers extra credit for, say, working deeper, but the important take-home message is this: Stripling’s performance has been extraordinary, and it’s very, very hard to do what he’s done without being a legitimately very good starting pitcher. Look at some of these other names. There are four Kershaw months up above. Two Sale months, and two Pedro months. The worst WAR/200 is 4.5, belonging to 2017 Alex Wood. A great month is no guarantee of anything, but if you’ve been wondering whether Stripling’s groove is in any way meaningful moving forward, the evidence suggests that you should think much higher of him than you used to. It’s tremendously difficult to perform this well if you aren’t already terrific.
There’s no one single explanation for Stripling’s rise. He’s added some bulk to improve his durability. He’s gained more experience, and more familiarity. As the anecdote goes, Stripling is now throwing his curveball as hard as he can, as opposed to trying to guide it. And Stripling is a four-pitch pitcher, who can locate all four pitches. His slider and curveball in particular have become great weapons. Stripling’s K-BB% against lefties last year was 14%. Now it’s double that number.
I will shed a little light on Stripling’s fastball/curveball combination. He throws over the top, so his fastball generates rise, with very little run. That also means his curveball is a true 12-to-6. You can see here how the pitches work together. A heater:
Followed by a curve:
Stripling is one of those guys who plays with the eye levels. He’s always thrown an elevated fastball, and now he has more confidence in his curve. I looked at every pitcher in baseball this season with a four-seam/curveball combination. Stripling’s pitches are separated by just 11.2 miles per hour — that ranks him in the 92nd percentile, in the direction where smaller is better. But Stripling’s pitches are also separated, vertically, by 20.1 inches. That ranks him in the 95th percentile. Put another way, there are very few pitchers who can get so much vertical separation while limiting the velocity gap. The most similar pitcher in that regard would be Drew Pomeranz, who has a very effective pitch combination when he’s healthy. Perhaps not coincidentally, Stripling has gotten a higher swing rate on curves out of the zone than he’s gotten on curves in it. Hitters have been all turned around, in part because Stripling also attacks with his slider and changeup. He never leans on his fastball in any count, regardless of the situation.
Every year, there are certain pop-up pitchers, who emerge after five or six good starts in a row. Sometimes, those pitchers establish themselves; other times, those pitchers fade away. There’s always the chance that, right now, Ross Stripling is a flash in the pan, but the difference for him is that he’s been *so* good. He’s been almost too good to fake. No, he can’t keep this level of performance up forever. That would make him the best pitcher in the universe. But, as to the question of whether Ross Stripling is a quality starter now — it would certainly appear that way. I don’t know a simpler way to put it.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.