Indulge me for a minute and join me on a trip down memory lane. Specifically, we’re going back to 2011. I know, I know. We don’t like to think about that season. It’s one of the most painful in franchise history. After all this time, though, the only thing that still really sticks out to me about that year is Alfredo Aceves. It’s fun to comment on how insane he was — and trust me, I do it all the time, too — but it’s easy to forget how good he was that year.
In fact, that’s probably my favorite individual pitching season of all time. His peripherals weren’t that great, and it wasn’t ever really a sustainable performance. However, he was good, and he did everything. Some nights, he would make a spot start. Other nights, he’d serve as long relief. He even finished 15 games. It’s not a role we think about very often, or even one that’s filled on even half the rosters in the league. Having a pitcher who can perform so many jobs, however, is a potentially massive advantage.
All of this brings me to Robbie Ross. Admittedly, I’ve been relatively low on him over the last year. I think it’s because I’ve been looking for a power-throwing lefty, and I resent Ross for not being that. Anyway, that’s on me, not him. Although he’s not going to blow anyone away, either with his fastball or with his stat line, he can fill something similar to that 2011 Aceves role. He’s probably not going to be making any spot starts, but he can do the rest. That will be very important for this team.
Before we look forward, let’s look back for a second. Last season, Ross was a rare bright(ish) spot in a very bad bullpen. He threw 60 innings of solid, respectable work. By the end of the year, he had pitched to a 3.86 ERA, 3.99 FIP and a 99 cFIP. He put up decent strikeout numbers (7.9 per nine innings), walk numbers (3.0 per nine) and home run numbers (1.0 per nine). Essentially, Ross was the very definition of a league-average pitcher.
Early on this year, it’s looking like the Red Sox can expect more of the same. We’re obviously still dealing with small samples, but early on he has induced fewer whiffs and fewer chases on pitches out of the zone. This, of course, will lower his strikeout totals if the trend continues. However, to balance that out, he’s been limiting his walks over the first couple weeks of the season. Between the small sample results and his overall track record, there’s little reason to expect anything different than a league-average pitcher.
Of course, there’s typically little reason to get excited about a league-average pitcher without any standout characteristic. They can be useful, but they mostly stay in the background. Ross has neither the high-end talent of the Kimbrel/Uehara/Tazawa/Smith tier, nor the potential of the Barnes/Hembree/Light tier. He’s stuck in the middle. However, that versatility will set him apart from the pack.
The most important part of Ross’ game is that he’s able to throw multiple innings in any given outing. While he’s not a starter any more, he was as recently as 2014 and has stayed somewhat stretched out since that time. In his first five outings this year, he’s gone at least two innings three times. Last year, he recorded more than three outs in 12 outings. Despite being a lefty, his platoon splits aren’t prohibitive enough to worry about him facing over half the lineup each time out. In fact, he’s shown no splits if you look at his entire career, as lefties possess a .322 wOBA against Ross compared to a .321 mark for righties. This Red Sox rotation has shown an inability to pitch deep into games in 2016, and that has the potential to destroy bullpens in short order. Having a guy like Ross can go a long way towards mitigating that damage.
Of course, long relievers aren’t exactly rare. Any team can find some former starter to eat some innings when the starter gets knocked out early. What makes Ross unique is that he’s shown an ability to pitch short stints late in games as well. In 2015, Ross made a whopping 40 outings in one of the final three innings, including 18 in the ninth or later. He didn’t show any signs of being affected by high-leverage situations, either, allowing just a .655 OPS in those situations with a 3.25 K/BB ratio, per Baseball-Reference. In fact, he was handed the closer role over the final month of the season and performed admirably in it. Obviously, you don’t want to make a habit out of pitching Ross late in games, particularly when you have so many better options. However, when injuries happen and guys like Tazawa and/or Uehara need rest, it’s nice having someone like Ross to fall back on.
When we think of versatility, we don’t usually think of relievers. It’s a valuable quality from bullpen arms, though, and you needn’t look further than Aceves in 2011. Ross can fill a similar role this season, with his ability to pitch multiple innings one night then turn around and throw in a high-leverage spot. Although he’s not the most talented arm, he can save the higher-end pitchers, a particularly valuable quality with a rotation like this. Ross will be overlooked all year — and I’ve been guilty of it in the past — but he’ll fill a uniquely important role.