Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Robbie Ross.
The Question: Is Robbie Ross a good fit as a team’s number one left-handed reliever?
This question might be a little unfair to pin on Ross himself, since it’s more about the team’s construction than the team itself. Ever since the team received Ross from the Rangers in exchange for Anthony Ranaudo, the lefty has been miscast as the team’s best left-handed reliever. In 2015, his first year in Boston, there was at least Tommy Layne to serve as a more traditional LOOGY. Layne wasn’t close to the most exciting pitcher we’ve ever seen, but he was at least solid most of the time. Last year, they didn’t really have that security blanket. Layne was there to start the year, then they shuffled through Fernando Abad and Robby Scott. Ross was really the only left-handed option. Looking at the current roster, there’s no reason to expect things to change in 2017. Is that okay?
I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t like Ross as a pitcher, because that’s far from the case. In fact, he was one of my favorite pitchers to watch last season. He was healthy and on the roster all year long, appearing in 54 innings and tossing 55-1/3 innings. He was above-average across the board as well, posting a 3.25 ERA, a 3.27 FIP and a 3.79 DRA.
Digging a little deeper, it’s not unclear why he was able to have so much success. Ross, perhaps finally comfortable as a full-time reliever after being tossed back and forth between the bullpen and rotation with Texas, upped his strikeout rate all the way to 23.5 percent. Meanwhile, he also posted a ground ball rate over 50 percent, a big reason why he allowed just two home runs over the entire year. Strikeouts plus ground balls is a great combination, but the best part of his year was his consistency. Although his ERA varied month-to-month, that was simply a matter of sequencing. He never had a month in which his FIP was above 4.00.
All of those positives aside, though, he’s not the overpowering lefty this team has been lacking since Andrew Miller was dealt to Baltimore. Instead, Ross is the a pitcher who is solid against both righties and lefties, but not dominant against either. At least he doesn’t seem to be that way. However, last year he was actually pretty damn close to being a dominant force against lefties, as they hit just .188 against Ross with an ISO of just .037. The one missing piece was control.
In 2016, Ross walked a whopping 13 percent of his left-handed opponents. Among the 116 southpaws who recorded at least 30 outs against lefties, only four had a higher walk rate. The good news is that this is not a career-long problem. In 2015, his walk rate versus lefties was just seven percent. So, the key is trying to figure out what has changed, and whether or not it can fixed without taking away from his other successes.
The solution for this can be found within his Brooks Baseball page. Compared to his 2015 season, Ross didn’t change his repertoire much at all. He threw a few more sliders and decreased his fastball usage slightly. Overall, it was much of the same. Oddly enough, it was these two pitches that missed the zone more often. Specifically, the rate at which each pitch was called a ball increased by roughly seven percentage points.
Ultimately, whether or not Ross will be able to take the next step against lefties will come down to whether or not he can get more strikes — or swings on pitches out of the zone — on his fastball without sacrificing what made it such an effective pitch in 2016. In 2015, that was the pitch on which all of his home runs versus lefties were hit. Last year, he didn’t allow a single homer with the pitch while also upping its whiff rate and ground ball rate. He did so by pounding the outside corner and bottom of the zone, just missing off the plate a bit too much.
While the walks were a bit disconcerting, it’s not something that Ross should worry about too much. As I said, he was still a damn fine pitcher in 2016 and him being miscast as a top left-handed reliever isn’t really his fault. Besides, the Red Sox have other options to try in that role to begin with. Fernando Abad was obviously disappointing last year, but he’s had success as a LOOGY in the past. Robby Scott looked impressive in a cup of coffee last year. Hell, Tyler Thornburg is a righty but dominated lefties last year. Among the 325 pitchers that recorded at least 60 outs versus lefties in 2016, only two held left-handed hitters to a lower wOBA than Thornburg.
In the end, this post was probably more of me talking myself out of a perceived problem I’ve had with the Red Sox for a few years. Andrew Miller likely spoiled myself and others into thinking good teams should have shut down left-handed relievers. This belief had us missing what we have in Ross. He’s not the prototypical fireballer with the wicked breaking ball, but he’s damn effective. And hell, if he can keep the same kind of contact while reducing his walk rate a bit against lefties, maybe he can make the leap into being a shutdown lefty.