Tyson Ross and Risk vs. Uncertainty

Tyson Ross was one of the more intriguing names available in this winter’s historically weak crop of free-agent pitching.

At his best, Ross is something of the Rich Hill of sliders. From 2012 to -15, Ross led baseball in slider usage (38.7%) among pitchers tossing at least 300 innings. The pitch was so effective, he was often a two-pitch pitcher.

Among pitchers to throw at least 300 innings, Ross posted the 12th-best swinging-strike percentage in the game (11.2%) during that three-year period, and his 3.34 FIP ranked 34th in the game. Over that same stretch, Ross tallied 9.5 WAR. He was one of the better starting pitchers in the game.

His slider was still effective on the only day he pitched in 2016. Just ask Carl Crawford:

Ross was quietly becoming one of the more valued starting pitchers in the game. Then 2016 happened.

He made just one start for the Padres last season, on April 4. In October, he had surgery to alleviate Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The procedure included the removal of a rib, which is common practice to relieve pressure on the effected nerves and vessels running from the neck through the arm. TOS is a rare injury. There isn’t a great sample from which to study in regard to pitchers, and the rate of successful returns is much less certain than, say, those returning from Tommy John surgery.

Despite his track record and upside, because of the health issue, Ross agreed to a relatively modest one-year, $6 million agreement with the Rangers last week.

Ross generated plenty of interest due to his performance history, but he received fewer guaranteed dollars than the oft-injured Charlie Morton, who earned a two-year, $14 million deal from the Astros this offseason after recording just four starts in 2016. Morton missed most of last season after having surgery to repair a hamstring tear. Ross received a lesser deal from the Rangers than the inconsistent Andrew Cashner, who earned a one-year, $10 million contract. Relief pitcher Daniel Hudson received two years and $11 million despite having undergone Tommy John surgery twice in his career.

While risk is inherent in every pitcher, risk was perhaps not the issue for Ross. The issue, rather, was uncertainty. There is a difference between risk and uncertainty, as Nate Silver describes in The Signal and the Noise:

Risk, as first articulated by the economist Frank H. Knight in 1921, is something that you can put a price on. Say that you’ll win a poker hand unless your opponent draws to an inside straight: the chances of that happening are exactly 1 chance in 11. This is risk. It is not pleasant when you take a “bad beat” in poker, but at least you know the odds of it and can account for it ahead of time…..Uncertainty, on the other hand, is risk that is hard to measure. You might have some vague awareness of the demons lurking out there. You might even be acutely concerned about them. But you have no real idea how many of them there are or when they might strike. ….Risk greases the wheels of a free-market economy; uncertainty grinds them to a halt.

We know a good bit about returns from Tommy John surgery.

A Henry Ford Hospital study found up to “90 percent” of major-league pitchers return to pitching, though they are typically not quite as effective.

Of course, some pitchers have been as effective or better after the surgery. Jordan Zimmermann became the first pitcher to have had Tommy John and then sign a $100 million contract, suggestive of the industry’s confidence in the procedure. Baseball’s decision-makers have a pretty good sense of the risk associated with a player having had the surgery.

Where Ross goes from here is much less clear. That uncertainty allows for a tremendous range of possibilities for the Rangers, anything from a vintage Ross season in 2017 to zero innings pitched.

Back in 2012 for Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh and Corey Dawkins authored a series on injuries, including an examination of TOS. The summary:

The prognosis for almost all of the injuries we have discussed in previous installments called for a good-to-excellent chance that the afflicted player would return to his previous levels. However, thoracic outlet syndrome still possesses the potential to be career-ending (or worse).

While covering the Royals for the Kansas City Star, Andy McCullough wrote about Chris Young and his experience with TOS , including some of the symptoms.

He could not complete push-ups. When he exercised on an elliptical machine, his arm ached. He could not fall asleep on his right side. He gave his toddler son a piggy-back ride and felt his hand go numb.

Pitchers like Young, Jaime Garcia, and Matt Harrison have pitched effectively after having the surgery. But as Nick Lampe’s work for Beyond the Boxscore reveals, others like Shaun Marcum – who retired last year – and Chris Carpenter have seen the issue seriously affect their carers. It’s a smaller sample with a spottier track record.

Ross was unwilling to sign a two-year deal, according to a Peter Gammons report last week.

A lot of baseball folks have been critical of Tyson Ross … for wanting a one year deal and not settling for a rebuild in 2017 and a second year in ’18. But Tyson is convinced he’s healthy, always cautious in how he proceeds, and whether it’s the Cubs, Rangers, Nationals, whoever, he wants one year and a trip into the free agent market at the end of the 2017 season.

Ross is willing to bet on himself. And the Rangers were willing to make a relatively modest bet on Ross.

There are enough success stories, at least short-term ones, like that of Young, to make the bet a worthwhile one. Despite the injury, the surgery, and the attached unknowns, it doesn’t preclude Ross from becoming one of the winter’s best values.

The Rangers could use rotation help, particularly with the Mariners’ aggressive offseason and the Astros perhaps in the mix for another starter pitcher.

If Ross’s Steamer projection of 1.8 WAR, 3.92 FIP and 113 innings represents the average of all possibilities, the Rangers would be thrilled. But in this case, projections are less useful.

Because we understand much more about Tommy John surgery, that risk is priced into to the market. It’s much more difficult to place a value on a pitcher coming off TOS surgery. But where there’s uncertainty, there’s opportunity.

We hoped you liked reading Tyson Ross and Risk vs. Uncertainty by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Is there any word on Harvey’s recovery from TOS? Will he be ready for spring training?