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Appreciating the recently solid Robbie Ross

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Robbie Ross has been the lone bright spot in a bad Boston bullpen over the last few months.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

You woke up after very little sleep and just a little bit of a hangover. You desperately need coffee, and would like to add a splash of milk to your hot beverage. However, you’re not sure how long that milk has been sitting in the fridge, so you open it up, stick your nose all up in there and smell it. We all know that smell, that horrible smell. Do you know what the personification of that smell is? I’ll tell you what the personification of that smell is. The personification of that smell, my friends, is the Red Sox bullpen.

There are very few positives among the many members of Boston’s relief corps. All you need to know is that Jean Machi was the closer for a relatively significant amount of time. Jean Machi! As such, rebuilding the bullpen will be one of the focal points of the upcoming offseason. The process may not be as important as rebuilding the rotation, but it will certainly take more work. There are maybe a handful of candidates for the 2016 bullpen on the roster, and a couple of them (Koji Uehara and Brandon Workman) are currently injured. One of those candidates is Robbie Ross, who has somewhat quietly gone from an afterthought to the best reliever in a bad group.

Ross was acquired from the Rangers this past offseason in a blockbuster trade for Anthony Ranaudo. He was brought in to compete for a bullpen spot, possibly filling in as a spot starter early in the year if needed.

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Photo credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Ross did end up making the team out of spring training, although his first impression with Red Sox fans wasn’t too great. The first half of his season was the definition of underwhelming. It wasn’t quite bad enough to cut bait with him entirely, but he pitched poorly enough to throw primarily in low-leverage situations and he was even demoted to Pawtucket for a brief stint. Overall, he appeared in twenty games through the end of June. In that time, he pitched to a 4.44 ERA with a 17/10 K/BB ratio over 24 innings while allowing an .810 OPS to his opponents. At that point of the year, he was effectively the white flag for the team, the man they sent out to the mound when the game was essential over.

Oh, how things have changed. Today, Ross finds himself as the team’s closer. While that may overstate how good he’s been considering the lack of real competition for the job, he’s still pitched like a legitimate major-league reliever, which is saying something on this team. Since the start of July, he’s thrown 30-1/3 innings over 27 appearances and has pitched to a 3.26 ERA  in that time while limiting his opponents to a .590 OPS. He’s been an entirely different pitcher in this span, most notably with his strikeout numbers. After striking out just 15.7 percent of the batters he faced in the first three months of the season, his K-rate is up to 25 percent since that time. In fact, among the 97 relievers with at least 20 innings in the second half, Ross’ 27 percent K-rate ranks 32nd.

The question, of course, is how has he been able to make this transformation. The first thing I’ve noticed is simply that he’s throwing slightly harder since the beginning of July. Possibly as a direct result of this, the whiff rate against his fastball has risen from 18 percent to 24 percent. He’s also switched up his repertoire a bit in the latter portion of the season. Specifically, Ross has thrown fewer fastballs and more sliders. The move makes sense, as his slider was his best pitch through June. It has remained a solid weapon, as he’s gotten whiffs 30 percent of the time on the pitch as well as a 70 percent ground ball rate.

It’s not just a repertoire change that’s leading to a better Ross, either. While some of the decrease in his opponents’ OPS is because of some batted ball luck, he’s also shown much better command. Check out this zone plot from the first three months of the season.

As you can see, he was throwing a whole lot of pitches in the strike zone in the early portion of the season, especially waist-high. Pitchers just can’t get away with that kind of locating in the majors, especially when they throw in the low-to-mid-90’s. Now, compare that to his zone plot from the last three months.

Now, he’s throwing the ball off the plate a lot more, specifically to his glove side. This makes sense considering how much more he’s emphasizing his slider these days. Even if batters are able to make contact on one of these pitches, they’re likely going to be ground balls or pop ups. Batters will surely make an adjustment at some point, but this kind of approach from Ross makes him look like a future piece of this bullpen.

Ross is going to be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. Considering his lack of an elite track record, he should be very cheap, too. That pretty much makes him a no-brainer for next year’s roster, an incredibly impressive statement given his status just a couple months ago. A heavier emphasis on his slider and better command in general has done wonders for Ross, who has gone from a white flag to the best reliever on the team in just two and a half months.