FanPost

Why Tyson Ross, Not Graham Godfrey, Should Go To The 'Pen Upon Braden's Return

Hey everyone! This is my first post over at AN, even though I’ve been a (mostly lurking) member for a few years now. Some of you probably know me from Twitter (@stoltz_baseball), through my podcast The 20-80 Report, or thanks to the over 1,000 articles that I’ve written in the almost exactly four years I’ve been writing online. I’ve written at Bleacher Report, OaklandClubhouse.com, and several different sites on the FanSided network, most recently Seedlings to Stars.

With that introduction out of the way, let’s turn to what I want to talk about today: which starting pitcher should be sent to the bullpen when Dallas Braden comes back. Obviously, if Braden’s injury problems keep him out for an extended period of time, the answer to that question will be a simple "Whoever’s pitching worst." But if the changeup artist returns quickly, then what?

I’ve gone on record (if Twitter counts as such) as saying I would prefer to stick with Graham Godfrey and kick Tyson Ross to relief, a position that appears to be quite unpopular with most A’s fans. Today, I’d like to explain what has led me to that conclusion.

First, though, allow me to address why I think so many people disagree. I see Godfrey dismissed as a serious MLB starter quite frequently, and it seems to me that few of his detractors have bothered to closely examine his merits. I’m sure that doesn’t apply to everyone and I don’t want to create a strawman argument, but I think a lot of the gap in perception between Godfrey and Ross is largely a result of…well…the past perception of Godfrey and Ross. Going into 2011, few knew or cared who Godfrey was—the only people who knew much about him were prospect hounds like myself—while Ross was on everyone’s radar thanks to his high draft status, quick ascension to the majors, and flashes of brilliance.

But let’s look at these guys side by side in three areas: stats/career backstory, pitching arsenal and approach, and overall profile/strengths/weaknesses.

The Stats

Tyson Ross

Tyson Ross was a 2nd-round pick from Cal in 2008. Despite being around for 3+ seasons, he’s only thrown 218 2/3 minor league innings. He owns a solid strikeout rate (7.98 K/9) for his career, but walks too many batters (3.87 BB/9). But you probably knew all of that.

You’re probably even more familiar with Ross as a major leaguer, where he’s posted a 4.18 ERA and 3.74 FIP in 75 1/3 innings, striking out 56 and walking 33. Notably, he also owns a 50.5% groundball rate. Of course, 27 of his 35 major league appearances have come out of the bullpen.

But you can basically throw all of that out the window. Really, Ross’ career breaks down this way:

2008—drafted, sees a few A-ball innings

2009—pitches solidly between High-A and Double-A

2010—is replacement-level MLB reliever, pitches solidly in six Triple-A starts, gets hurt

2011—solid in MLB in swing role, horrendous in Triple-A, gets hurt

Over the past two years, Ross has thrown 155 innings across five stops, none encompassing even 40 frames—not a great way to get a handle on a player. In MLB, he’s pitched well once and poorly once; in Triple-A, he’s pitched well once and poorly once. He also was rather mediocre in the Arizona Fall League in 2011.

Not particularly helpful, is it? About all you can say is that Ross has showed flashes of success up through the highest level, but is inconsistent and has trouble staying healthy.

Graham Godfrey

Godfrey was a 34th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2006 who was signed to a $200K bonus as a draft-and-follow (remember those?!). He was thought of highly enough to rank as Toronto’s #18 prospect according to Baseball America going into 2007. He didn’t start his pro career until he was closer to his 23rd birthday than his 22nd, so he’s always been old for his levels.

Godfrey had a rather nondescript debut in the Midwest League, but the A’s saw enough in him to make him the headlining prospect they acquired for Marco Scutaro following the 2007 season. Or, at least, I hope they did—or else that would mean that the rather horrendous Kristian Bell was more noteworthy. In any case, Godfrey turned in a solid age-23 season with Stockton in 2008, with a 119/37 K/BB ratio in 134 innings.

The next year, the righthander would continue to plod along in Midland, with a 3.50 ERA and 3.56 FIP, though his K/9 dropped to 6.21, which is hardly exciting for a 24-year-old starter. The A’s gave him a rotation spot in Sacramento in 2010, and his strikeout rate rebounded to 7.36 K/9, but his walk rate ballooned to 4.49 after never being above even 3.00 at any previous stop. You can’t walk a batter every other inning in the PCL without enormous K numbers and live to tell about it, and Godfrey was pasted for a 5.67 ERA (4.38 FIP) and ended up demoted back to Midland in August.

He would open 2011 in Midland again, but after one game there, the then-26-year-old was given a second chance in Sacramento, and lo and behold, he figured things out, keeping the Ks (7.46) while cutting his walks to nearly a career-best (2.52, just off the 2.49 he had in Stockton). That was good for a 2.68 ERA and 3.30 FIP—those both ranked second in the circuit for pitchers with at least 100 innings.

Godfrey also threw 25 innings across five games (four starts and a long relief appearance) with the A’s, and he didn’t embarrass himself, walking just five batters while striking out 13 and holding his own with groundballs (44% GB, 3 HRA).

If you’re an optimist, which I suppose I am, you look at his 2011 stats and say "Hey, this guy succeeded in the toughest minor league and was decent in the majors; he certainly needs a look." However, I can understand that one would be skeptical of his pedestrian 2007, 2009, and 2010 seasons. At age 27 and with more Triple-A innings than Ross has minor league innings, Godfrey certainly has a more extensive track record, but in some ways, he’s almost as confusing statistically. The most we can say with confidence is that he shouldn’t walk many guys.

The Stuff

Tyson Ross

Ross throws four pitches: an 89-95 mph four-seamer with a bit of sink and cut, an 89-95 mph two-seamer with sink and armside run, an 84-87 mph power slider, and an 84-88 mph changeup that acts somewhat like a splitter.

Ross gets very good plane to the plate with all of his pitches thanks to his 6’6" frame, allowing him to pitch downhill and rack up the ground balls. He also clearly brings velocity and movement to the table.

However, his stuff doesn’t play the way one might expect—well, other than his slider. The slider is a devastating pitch—he got 22 swinging strikes out of 110 he threw last year—so that plays just fine. But beyond that, things get troublesome. Here’s a look at Ross’ pitch outcomes in 2011, taken from the awesome Brooks Baseball:

Pitch

Counts

Ball

Call Str.

Swings

Fouls

Whiffs

BIP

GB

LD

FB

PU

Fourseam (FA)

248

38.31%

22.18%

36.69%

14.11%

4.44%

20.16%

6.05%

4.84%

5.24%

4.03%

Sinker (SI)

125

49.60%

11.20%

37.60%

11.20%

3.20%

24.00%

16.00%

4.80%

3.20%

Slider (SL)

110

35.45%

20.00%

43.64%

10.00%

20.00%

14.55%

8.18%

0.91%

3.64%

1.82%

Changeup (CH)

71

42.25%

8.45%

46.48%

14.08%

14.08%

19.72%

9.86%

8.45%

1.41%

Both of Ross’ fastballs generate almost no swinging strikes, and too few strikes in general. This is especially true of the sinking fastball, which went for a ball nearly half the time last year. When the pitches were swung at, they were usually put into play (note the abnormally high BIP/Foul ratio). The sinker got some grounders, which is good, but the high amount of balls and contact put Ross behind in counts or ended at-bats altogether, which prevented him from being able to set up his offspeed pitches effectively.

The changeup, which has long been considered Ross’ weak point, played decently in its limited usage, generating some swinging strikes but missing the zone too often.

Graham Godfrey

What first pops to mind when you think of Graham Godfrey’s pitching arsenal? Not a whole lot, right? There’s not a whole lot remarkable about his stuff. He’s obviously not a power pitcher, but he’s not exactly Jamie Moyer or even Tom Milone out there either—he’s more of an average-across-the-board four-pitch guy, so nothing he throws leaves all that strong of a positive or negative impression.

Godfrey works off of an 88-93 mph fastball with cutting action that he throws around 70% of the time. He also throws an 80-84 mph slider and changeup and a 74-78 mph curveball, none of which are particularly interesting, though they do give him a deep enough arsenal to go through the order three times. Here’s a look at his 2011 pitch results:

Pitch

Counts

Ball

Call Str.

Swings

Fouls

Whiffs

BIP

GB

LD

FB

PU

Fourseam (FA)

340

31.47%

12.94%

54.71%

25.00%

8.53%

21.47%

8.24%

3.53%

6.47%

3.24%

Sinker (SI)

18

55.56%

5.56%

33.33%

5.56%

27.78%

11.11%

11.11%

5.56%

Slider (SL)

66

40.91%

19.70%

39.39%

13.64%

9.09%

16.67%

10.61%

1.52%

3.03%

1.52%

Curveball (CU)

45

35.56%

28.89%

35.56%

15.56%

2.22%

17.78%

8.89%

8.89%

Changeup (CH)

36

41.67%

5.56%

52.78%

25.00%

5.56%

22.22%

11.11%

5.56%

2.78%

2.78%


A few things jump out here. First, Graham Godfrey throws a lot of strikes. This table lists his fastball as going for strikes 68.53% of the time; TexasLeaguers.com had him at 71.05%, which is even better. According to FanGraphs, 51.3% of Godfrey’s pitches were placed in the strike zone, well above the MLB average of 45.3% and ranking 15th out of the 432 pitchers that threw 25 or more innings.

Second, Godfrey’s fastball is far more effective than Ross’ pair of heaters. It goes for a strike far more often, and even more impressively, it goes for a swinging strike far more often. In fact, Godfrey’s fastball had a higher swinging strike rate (8.53%) than all of Ross’ pitches combined (7.8%) last year—and of course, Ross’ slider and changeup got a ton of swinging strikes. That’s a little-known fact, but it’s an important one.

Godfrey’s secondary stuff is quite ordinary, as you can see here—none of his offspeed pitches generated even a 10% swinging strike rate, but they generated some groundballs and went for a decent percentage of strikes. So, in a lot of ways, he’s the opposite of Ross. Ross has below-average control, his fastball isn’t very effective, and his secondary pitches are very good, while Godfrey pounds the zone and his fastball is easily his most effective pitch. Overall, they ended up in a similar place when it came to missing bats last year, with Godfrey at a 7.2% swinging strike rate to Ross’ 7.8%. As far as the other two core skills—control and groundball ability—Godfrey has the advantage in the former and Ross in the latter. Due to his velocity and movement edge and the presence of an out pitch in his slider, Ross clearly has the "raw stuff" advantage, but the two pitchers’ arsenals seem to play roughly equally overall, at least in the small 2011 samples.

Role

Tyson Ross

Tyson Ross clearly has some strengths and some weaknesses, as I’ve outlined. On the plus side: he throws hard, his fastball moves well, his slider is a wipeout offering, his changeup is a credible third pitch, and he gets a lot of groundballs. On the minus side: his fastball doesn’t play up to its raw attributes, he doesn’t throw enough strikes, and he has a long injury history and questionable mechanics.

If he can fix his problems—i.e. stay healthy, throw strikes, and find a way to get better results from the fastball—then Ross has considerable upside in any role. Without that, it’s tough to see him being a particularly effective starter. Will those improvements happen? Your guess is as good as mine.

Ross could be a pretty terrifying slider reliever, though. Put him in the bullpen throwing 92-97 and with the ability to unleash the slider more regularly, and a lot of the problems are solved. I mentioned earlier how he struggles to set the slider up with the fastball—in the bullpen, he could use the slider as both a get-me-over first pitch and a strikeout pitch. Heck, Michael Wuertz had some great years throwing two sliders for every fastball—Ross wouldn’t need to get that extreme to experience success, but a 50% fastball/40% slider/10% changeup distribution could suit him very well.

Obviously, he can’t do that as a starter, because it would probably snap his elbow off. I probably don’t need to rehash the concerns about Ross’ bizarrely short stride and the strain it puts on his arm, so there’s enough concerns about his ability to hold up for even 100 innings in a season as it is. In relief, he’s dealing with a much lower workload—if his arm won’t hold up there, it probably won’t hold up anywhere.

Also note Ross’ career MLB splits:

Against LHB: 12.6% K, 9.9% BB, 58.3% GB
Against RHB: 22.7% K, 11.0% BB, 41.7% GB

Ross adopts a sinker/change approach to lefties, whereas he goes four-seam/slider to righties. He thus gets more grounders against lefties, but his K/BB ratio is far worse. He would benefit from a role that allowed him to see a higher percentage of righties, though he clearly wouldn’t need to be a total specialist—he could be a middle/late-inning fireman, or even a closer.

Graham Godfrey

Unlike Ross, Godfrey isn’t a pitcher of extreme strengths and weaknesses; he’s much more of an average-across-the-board guy who succeeds because he’s more than the sum of his parts.

It’s often said that pitchers are moved to the bullpen because they can’t cut it as starters. That is often true, but it’s probably more accurate to say that starter-to-relief conversions occur because the pitcher in question can access his strengths more frequently while hiding his weaknesses. Ross, for example, could unleash his slider. For many, they can eschew throwing a changeup. For some, they can face same-side batters more frequently. And so on.

As much as I like Godfrey and feel he’s overlooked, I don’t really see him standing out in a relief capacity. His value is that he pounds the zone and changes speeds, a skill that doesn’t really diminish over multiple innings. I suppose he could go from 88-93 to 90-95 or so in relief, which would be interesting, but beyond that? None of his pitches generated a whiff rate above 10%, so there’s nothing he should really single out as going to more, but none of them were so bad that he’d be better off without the pitch.

In short, Graham Godfrey the reliever would basically be Graham Godfrey the starter, just in smaller doses with a bit more velocity. The value of a pitcher like this is that he can eat innings and keep you in games—he’s not worth as much to you in three-plate-appearance bursts, because his stuff doesn’t play exceptionally well against any one specific type of hitter.

To think of it from a statistical perspective, let’s say Godfrey and Ross are 4.20 ERA-quality starters (just picking an in-the-ballpark number). It’s been said that starters can expect to shave about a run of ERA off by moving to relief, so in theory, they’d both then be 3.20 ERA-caliber relievers. But I would argue that, because Ross can significantly "optimize" his approach in the bullpen, while Godfrey can’t, that Ross’ relief ERA would be closer to 3.00 while Godfrey’s would be closer to 4.00. That means that Ross can either be a back-of-the-rotation starter or high-leverage reliever, while Godfrey can be a back-of-the-rotation starter or low-leverage reliever. Obviously, we know which one of those is more valuable.

I see Godfrey as a first-division #5 starter or second-division #3/#4.

Conclusions

To sum up thus far:

  • Both guys have had strange career paths and have shown enough ability to at least merit extended MLB trials.
  • Ross has better raw "stuff," but Godfrey has better control. Godfrey’s fastball plays better, while Ross’ offspeed stuff plays better.
  • Both have enough going for them to pitch in the back of a rotation. Ross has more upside thanks to his better raw stuff, but he has more advantages to exploit in a bullpen role than Godfrey does.

You can probably see where I’m going with this—if you’re carrying both on an MLB staff, and only one can start, Ross has more value in relief than Godfrey does, while it’s unclear who the better starter is, so you can optimize them by having Ross relieve and Godfrey start. But that’s not the only reason I believe Godfrey should stay in when Braden comes back.

No, that traces back to the beginning of this piece, where I was discussing how nobody seems to care about Godfrey, yet many care about Ross. Right now, Graham Godfrey isn’t much of an asset for the Oakland A’s. He’s a relatively anonymous 27-year-old with 25 solid MLB innings who hasn’t been on prospect lists for a few years now. Tyson Ross, on the other hand, is an electric-armed soon-to-be-25-year-old who was a high draftee who sped to the majors. He’s still a very interesting guy to even casual A’s fans, while Godfrey is an afterthought.

And let’s be frank—is either pitcher in our dream 2015 rotation? Heck, is either pitcher in our dream 2013 rotation? Off the top of my head, here’s a list of pitchers I’d probably rather see in the 2013 rotation than Ross or Godfrey:

Brett Anderson
Brandon McCarthy
Dallas Braden
Tom Milone
Jarrod Parker
Brad Peacock
Sonny Gray

McCarthy may leave after the season, but even if no upper-minors pitchers break out and the A’s acquire no other candidates, it’s easy to see Ross and Godfrey crowded out very quickly.

Where am I going with this? Well, to me, there’s a significant amount of evidence that Graham Godfrey is an asset, as a guy who can eat innings while churning out 4ish ERAs—but nobody really realizes it yet. And nobody will realize it until Godfrey actually goes out for 10-15 starts and pitches up to my expectations.

Really, it’s the same principle that dictates why Grant Balfour should’ve been named the closer for 2012—you manufacture value. With Peacock probably a dozen Triple-A starts from being ready, Braden just a few weeks from returning, and Anderson due back midseason, the A’s aren’t going to get much more of a chance to see what Godfrey can do in a starting role, so they’re going to miss out on the opportunity to get the attention of rival scouts and executives who would be in the market for a cost-controlled back-of-the-rotation starter.

Ross, on the other hand, will have value regardless. He has higher upside in relief than Godfrey does, so he’d remain an interesting asset in that role while Godfrey would just become a nondescript reliever. Even beyond that, Ross is 2 ½ years younger and has more compelling stuff, so he’s a more intriguing acquisition for rival GMs than Godfrey is.

Overall, then, not only does Godfrey starting and Ross relieving optimize the 2012 A’s pitching staff (again, assuming both are in MLB and only one can start), it optimizes the value of the pair as assets to the A’s franchise as a whole. There’s not much more time to get a look at Godfrey as a starter; if he’s starting games for the 2014 A’s, he’ll either have exceeded even my wildest expectations or something will have gone horribly wrong with the younger arms. Ross could have value to the A’s in a variety of roles several seasons into the future, so there’s not as much urgency to maximize his value right now.

I’d continue on, but I’ve made my main points and am nearly at 3,500 words. Hopefully it was a compelling 3,500 words. Thanks for reading, and feel free to fire away at me in the comments!

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