The Particular Upside of Robbie Ross by Jeff Sullivan January 28, 2015 Toward the end of the day on Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers swapped Anthony Ranaudo and Robbie Ross. It doesn’t immediately seem like a trade of much consequence: Ranaudo’s a prospect with diminishing sheen, and Ross is coming off a pretty ugly experience as an attempted big-league starter. And, probably, it won’t be a trade of much consequence. Ranaudo seems like, if he’ll be anything, he’ll be a decent reliever. And Ross has looked like a lefty reliever who doesn’t do a great job of getting lefties out. But — well, let me start with this. I’m about to focus on one side of this trade. I’ve heard all you guys complaining that we post too much content about the Red Sox. I understand where you’re coming from, and this isn’t going to make things better. But this isn’t about fitting into a pattern; I just find Ross to be more interesting, statistically, than I do Ranaudo. Ranaudo’s all scouting. Visual learners are going to like to talk about him. Me? I want to share something about Ross’ 2014 — something that might make him better than he seems. As far as Ranaudo is concerned — so we can at least address that part — Kiley put him 13th in the Boston system. The caption: Ranaudo was yet another former first rounder and while the 6’7/230 monster has cleaned up his delivery some and still flashed a plus fastball-curveball combo, the changeup and command still lag behind, making a relief fit likely. Ranaudo was bad in his debut in the majors. Didn’t strike anyone out. Gave up too much contact and too many dingers. He wasn’t particularly impressive in Triple-A, either. At 25, it’s not like he’s a kid with plenty of time. He’s huge and he has a power arm, which gives him obvious upside, and maybe the Rangers will be able to make things click. Guys like this always get chances. But Ranaudo probably isn’t a long-term starter. He might be able to help in the bullpen in 2015. Let’s move to Ross. When he’s been good in the majors in the past, he’s been a reliever. With the Red Sox, at least for the moment, it seems like he’s a reliever. Even though he started in the majors a dozen times last year, he had a rather hard go of it. He posted an ERA near 6.00, and his strikeouts failed to at least double his walks. Ross himself would probably tell you the transition could’ve been a lot smoother. He’d probably tell you he didn’t do enough as a starter to stick. Hold there for a moment. As a starter, Ross didn’t miss that many bats. His walk rate was worse than average, but, interestingly, he had a top-10 zone rate. That’s not the kind of thing you’d expect, so that calls for a deeper investigation. I decided to go back to my homemade pitch-framing stat. A quick review, for anyone who hasn’t already read this paragraph in other posts: It’s possible, with data we have here, to calculate a pitcher’s expected total number of strikes. That’s pitches in the PITCHf/x strike zone, plus swings at pitches out of the zone. By comparing that number to a pitcher’s actual number of strikes, you can get some sense of who did and didn’t benefit from a more generous called zone. Last year, 257 pitchers threw at least 1,000 pitches. For each pitcher, I calculated extra strikes above or below average per 1,000 pitches. That per-1,000 is arbitrary, but it does put everyone over the same denominator. In any case, the bottom 10: Rank Pitcher Extra Strikes/1000 1 A.J. Ramos -38.0 2 Ronald Belisario -34.8 3 Jared Burton -33.7 4 Jamey Wright -30.1 5 Robbie Ross -28.9 6 Samuel Deduno -28.9 7 Jake Diekman -28.5 8 Jake Petricka -27.9 9 Dan Otero -27.4 10 Daniel Webb -25.1 Right there, at fifth-worst: Robbie Ross. He threw 1,355 pitches, and he lost about 39 strikes, relative to the average. This doesn’t prove anything, but this does strongly suggest something. Matthew Carruth has made some neat leaderboards available at StatCorner. Let’s look only at starting pitchers this time who threw at least 1,000 pitches. Last year, Ross had the very highest rate of pitches taken within the strike zone called balls. He also tied for the very lowest rate of pitches taken outside of the strike zone called strikes. That suggests the same thing as above: Ross was getting no help from his catchers. Some of this can be due to erratic command, but usually, this is about the backstops. From Texas Leaguers, Ross’ called zone: You can see how tightly he was called. He got hardly anything off the edges. He got hardly anything on the edges, or even just within. Ross, I’m sure, was struggling some, but with his catchers also doing him harm, it was all the more difficult to get ahead, stay ahead, or put hitters away. The 2015 Red Sox, of course, are lined up to have excellent receivers in Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan. Even just giving Ross decent receivers could make a big difference; giving him great receivers could conceivably be a game-changer. Last season, out of 185 starters who threw at least 50 innings, Ross tied for ninth in groundball rate, yet he finished 104th in strike rate. But now plug in those 39 missing strikes, to adjust Ross for an average amount of catcher help. He moves all the way up to 20th in strike rate. If you add in more strikes, to try to adjust for the catchers he’ll have in Boston, it only gets brighter. This is too simple an analysis to take the numbers for granted, but it’s illustrative. Ross was in the zone a lot last year. With better catchers, he’ll either get more strikes, or he’ll be able to move out of the zone a bit more often, generating more swings and misses and weak contact. Robbie Ross wasn’t a very good starting pitcher for the Rangers. The Red Sox aren’t counting on him to be a very good starting pitcher for them. It’s possible he won’t start for them at all, depending on how he does, and depending on how the starters do, and depending on guys like Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez. But with better catchers, Ross should at least be able to be a more functional reliever. And as potential left-handed rotation depth, he makes for interesting injury or Joe Kelly insurance. As unremarkable as he might seem, he’s a groundballer who might be more of a strike-thrower than he looked like in Texas. With grounders and strikes, you don’t need to do a whole lot else.