March 27, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Robbie Ross (46) throws against the San Diego Padres in the first inning at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE

Robbie Ross-What can we expect?-Off the Radar

The 2 time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers made some very strange and interesting choices on the 20-25 spots on their roster. They decided to keep guys like Brandon Snyder (who has a career OPS of .711 at AAA!) and Alberto Gonzalez (a career -1.4 WAR in 378 games in the MLB) as position players. For the bullpen, short of lefties, they decided to keep Robbie Ross, a former 2nd round pick of the Rangers with no MLB experience. On this post I want to see what we can expect from Ross in the Majors.

Ross was projected to have a 5.51 ERA in 2011 according to ZIPs projection systems. Of course, he didn’t pitch in the majors and is projected to have a 5.16 ERA this year. But just how much can we trust ZIPs?

With Ranger pitchers, it was in the general vicinity of Michael Kirkman, who posted a 5.51 FIP when ZIPs projected a 5.08 ERA. Ryan Tucker posted a 6.43 FIP, when he was projected at a 6.03 ERA. Rich Harden was one that ZIPs was pretty far off, as he was projected to have a 109 ERA +, but ended up having an ERA + of around 80 with Oakland. ZIPs was far too optimistic with Colby Lewis, who earned a 101 ERA +, when it was projected he would have a 122 ERA +. ZIPs was way too pessimistic on Brandon McCarthy and Guillermo Moscoso, who both had nice years for Oakland. It was also not close on Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Scott Feldman who all outperformed their projections. So it appears that ZIPs is not very helpful when it comes to Ranger pitchers who have already pitched in the majors.

So I wanted to see how ZIPs did in 2011 when it came to pitchers who hadn’t pitched in the Majors before. Was it too conservative, too optimistic, or was it just scattered and clueless (or was it actually really awesome)? It was conservative when it came to Michael Pineda, as it had him with a 4.12 ERA in 2011, when he actually had a 3.74 ERA and 3.42 FIP (Blake Beavan’s FIP and ERA was also better than his projection but it was closer). Josh Collementer was projected to have an awful 5.06 ERA, even though he came in with a 3.80 FIP (to be fair, many scouts believe that Collementer is due for some big time regression). Juan Nicasio had a 3.65 FIP despite being projected to have a 5.24 ERA. Alex Cobb was projected to have a 4.94 ERA and Matt Moore was projected to have a 4.79 ERA. They both had ERAs well under 4, though to be fair, Moore was on a very small sample size. Rex Brothers, Danny Duffy (his ERA was above his projected ERA), and Tyler Chatwood all had better FIPs than projected ERAs as well. So almost without exception (at least in 2011), ZIPs is way too conservative when it comes to projecting pitchers that have not pitched in the Majors before.

There are dozens of other projection systems, but I don’t want to beat you over the head using those. Instead, I want to beat you over the head with my projections. On my little blog, I have designed minor league projections. According to these projections, Ross would have a 4.07 or 4.59 ERA (the former is based on just 6 AA starts). This would still be disappointing, but are my ERA minor league projections better than ZIPs at projecting minor league players? It was too conservative on Tyler Chatwood (projecting a 5.24 ERA, while Chatwood posted a 4.75), was way too optimistic on Danny Duffy, and slightly too optimistic on Brothers (2.88 versus a projected 2.42). It was too pessimistic on Alex Cobb, projecting a 4.17 ERA (closer than ZIPs). It was really close on Michael Pineda with a 3.64 ERA, and was relatively close with Beavan (although too pessimistic). Josh Collmenter’s AA projection was nearly spot on, at 3.24, while Nicasio’s was pretty close but pessimistic at 4.37. So it would seem that my projections from the minors to the majors are more accurate than ZIPs (although ZIPs was consistent in missing conservatively).

Of course there are other ways to get a look at Ross besides projections. In simply watching Ross a few times in the spring I though he was really aggressive in the strike zone, too aggressive. Luckily, we don’t have to go on just what I saw. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, we can look at Ross’s outings this spring and see his pitch locations/velocity etc. According to the Pitch F/X system, Ross throws a 90 MPH fastball, with a slider, curve, and change. Here are his pitch locations against right handed hitters (he only had a few pitches against left handers):

As I expected, he threw a whole lot of fastballs in the middle of the plate. He also had some issues with hanging sliders. The curveball and the change are pitches he hardly isn’t throwing, but common wisdom says that as a reliever you can live with two pitches. They just have to be quality pitches, and since Ross doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, his location on his slider has to be much better. It is also important to note that no reliever in 2011 (that threw at least 30 innings) had a fastball between 88-91 and just one other pitch. They all had at least two other pitches. So it does seem, contrary to common wisdom I guess, important for Ross to be able to use the other two pitches at least occasionally.

How does he compare to the 2 pitchers he beat out for the spot on the roster, Michael Kirkman and Neal Cotts?

ZIPs projects Kirkman to have a 5.17 ERA, so a toss up in that area, while Kirkman has a 4.56 career MLB FIP (in the ballpark of what I project for Ross). Kirkman has the advantage when it comes to velocity, occasionally hitting 95 and averaging 92.5 MPH in the MLB. Kirkman has the same pitches, except he also has a sinker.

As you can see, Kirkman has had problems with that sinker, locating way too many up. He also has a cluster of pitches in the very middle of the plate. This is obviously a huge problem. Ross also receives better ratings for Baseball Cube with a 85 control, 51 K-rating, 82 efficiency, and 80 vs.Power. Kirkman is only better at K-rating (76), with 38 control, 50 efficiency, and 64 vs.Power.

The other real competitor for the job Ross won was Neal Cotts. On Tuesday it was announced he had a strain of his latissimus dorsi (lat muscle) and will be out for at least a month. He hasn’t pitched since ’09 because of different injuries, including Tommy John. It is pretty apparent now why Ross won the job over him (Yoshi Tateyama also seems to be headed to the DL, which helps Robbie’s cause).

While Brooks Baseball didn’t have comparisons for Ross, I found a couple of pitchers that had similar pitches and locations as Ross. The first one also is also named Ross, Tyson Ross of the Oakland A’s (recently optioned to AAA):

Tyson Ross has a sinker, which separates him from Robbie, but you see similar fastball locations against right-handers with a slider that hangs quite a bit (no comparison is perfect of course, as you can see that Tyson can throw it down and in on right-handers, as he is right handed). Tyson throws at a greater velocity, averaging 92 MPH last year, and has a career MLB FIP of 3.74. It seems reasonable (when looking at just velocity and location charts) to conjecture that Robbie (at least at this point) is not as good of a pitcher as Tyson.

The other pitcher that I saw some similarity with was Enerio Del Rosario of the Houston Astros:

The right hander throws about 90 MPH like Ross and it seems Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball disagrees on what his sinker looks like and what his fastball looks like. Despite an amazing ground-ball rate, Del Rosario has been far less successful than Tyson, with a 4.40 career FIP.

Al Alburquerque has the highest rated slider in baseball (for relievers) according to Fangraphs and you can see his locations here or just watch it in this video (go ahead and fast forward it to about 20 seconds in to see the slider):

That is what the best slider in baseball looks like, and Tyson’s looks more like that than Robbie’s (and Del Rosario seems to be in between the two).

Robbie Ross pitched on Tuesday night against the Mexico City Red Devils and I thought he had better command of both his fastball and his slider. I focus on two sliders, one on slow motion video (click on the link), and one on a picture below:

A lot of Rangers fans/commentators have been drawn to Robbie Ross thanks to his good spring numbers (which causes me to die a little inside as spring numbers mean nothing really). When asked about the spring Ross is having, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus responded:

Robbie Ross was the same pitcher this spring that he has been in the past. From a low-slot and a high leg, Ross can disguise his release, which allows his 89-92 mph fastball to jump on hitters. The pitch has natural cutting action and sink, which makes it difficult to lift and effective against both RH/LH. His slider is another plus pitch, normally thrown in the mid-80s with some tilt. He attacks hitters in the zone with his arsenal, breaking bats and missing barrels. He lacks size and his third pitch is fringy, but the two pitch mix is major league quality. As nice and gentle as Ross is off the field, he’s as ruthless on it, challenging hitters and owning his stuff. If the third pitch comes around, he could become an innings-eater starter. But for now, he’s a major league reliever, and that will push him forward in the developmental process. You can’t simulate the major league experience at the minor league level.

Parks is obviously more optimistic than either the projections or my view of Ross using the Pitch F/X data. In conclusion, it seems that Ross will be a below average reliever, probably in the bottom (I guess the top if you sort by highest) 3rd of the league in relief ERA, and the bottom half (probably the lower third as well) in strikeouts per 9 innings. However, he is a pitcher with quite a bit of potential who should improve over the next few years and become a decent middle to back of the rotation starter.

Tags: Relief Pitchers Robbie Ross Texas Rangers