Tyson Ross and Due Diligence

Don't look so down, Tyson. My financial adviser tells me to expect a lot of future growth for the "hold" statistic.

Every job brings with it certain situations which require due diligence. If you're an investor, that might mean auditing a company's financial records before betting money on them; are they as profitable as they say they are? A judge needs to hear both sides of the case before convicting Paris Hilton of a DUI; perhaps she just naturally sucks at driving and was wearing Grey Goose perfume. If you're a baseball player, due diligence might mean checking the ingredients on that bottle of cough syrup before drinking it. Clenbuterol? I'm pretty sure that's just food coloring. No need to look it up just to make sure. Due diligence!

The Oakland Athletics had some due diligence to perform with Tyson Ross. They needed to do a thorough investigation to find out if their 25-year-old, 6'6" right-hander, whose fastball touches 95mph, could cut it as a starting pitcher. The conventional wisdom is that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a good (or even great) relief pitcher, and Ross had the size and the velocity to make that seem like an attainable goal. It's worth taking the extra time to try to maximize his value.

Ross didn't make things easy. He would tantalize with a great start against the Angels, and then get knocked around by the Orioles. Then he'd put up another great start against the Angels, only to get hammered by the Rays and the Yankees. He was the Jekyll & Hyde of the A's rotation, but he was only Jekyll against the Angels. Otherwise, it was "Hyde under the bleachers; it's raining baseballs!"

Last week, the A's ended the experiment. Ross was called on for a spot start on Thursday, and delivered another clunker. According to Susan Slusser, he was moved to the bullpen upon his subsequent demotion. The general response is, "What took so long?" It seemed obvious to just about every outside observer that Ross belonged in the bullpen, so what was keeping Oakland from coming to the same conclusion? Due diligence, that's what. If we've learned anything from the 2012 season, it's that young players (Carter and Donaldson) and even former youngsters (Moss and Blackley) continue to grow and develop, and can suddenly go from flame-out to success-story when you least expect it. However, that doesn't change the fact that the writing has been on the wall for awhile now. Ross is a talented pitcher who is not cut out to be a starter. Continue after the jump to find out why!

(All stats for this article were taken from Baseball-Reference.com, and do not include Parker's start today in Cleveland.)

Twenty-three pitchers have taken the hill for the Athletics this year. Only four of them have posted ERA's over 4, and they've only combined to throw about 125 innings. The entire list, with ERA's and explanations as to why they are no longer on the team:

Graham Godfrey (6.43; DFA'd, currently awaiting fate back in AAA)
Brian Fuentes (6.84; released, currently out of baseball)
Andrew Carignan (4.66; underwent Tommy John surgery)
Tyson Ross (6.45; totally not a starter)

That's it. Earned runs are a disease, and the A's have quarantined it to just these four pitchers. Ross is different than those other guys, though. They tend(ed) to be consistently ineffective, all the time. When Ross starts, though, he seems to cruise along for a few innings, and then utterly implode for one game-ending disaster-inning. At least, that's what it seems like. What do the numbers say? Here is Ross's OPS allowed, inning-by-inning:

1st: .629
2nd: .715
3rd: .789
4th: .889
5th: 1.329
6th: .889

Yep. Turns out "that inning" is usually the 4th, 5th, or 6th. Hmm, if he's cruising through the first 9 outs before getting roughed up, then I wonder if...

1st time through the order: .660 OPS allowed
2nd time through the order: .838
3rd time through the order: 1.235

OK, now we're getting somewhere. Ross gets less and less effective every time through the order. That's bad for a starting pitcher, but totally irrelevant for a relief pitcher (since a reliever almost never goes through the entire lineup in a single appearance). What if we base it on pitch count?

1-25: .690 OPS allowed
26-50: .758
51-75: .929
76-100: 1.188

Same story. Dude falls off a cliff if you make him go for more than, say, 3 innings. I guess you could argue about sample sizes, but do you really want to? He's only got a fastball and a slider, because his change-up is terrible. It's not that crazy to suggest that a guy with only two pitches, who has good-but-not-elite velocity, can't make it two or three times through a lineup. Sometimes the data tells us exactly what we see with our eyeballs, and it's silly to sit around waiting to be proven wrong. And, just in case you're thinking that maybe ALL starters show similar patterns in their splits, I've prepared a table for you (the numbers are their OPS allowed):

Pitcher 1st time thru 2nd time thru 3rd time thru
Ross .660 .838 1.235
McCarthy .695 .669 .708
Parker .687 .592 .774
Milone .717 .715 .663

Can you tell which one doesn't belong? A legitimate starter can keep things pretty well consistent throughout the game; they may get hit, sure, but it is equally (un)likely to happen at any point in the game. Guys like McCarthy and Parker use that first time through the order to set up the 2nd (and third) times through. Milone just cruises with his change-up, and if he makes it deep enough to face a lineup for the third time, then he's a pretty good bet to continue pitching well. Ross has nothing to fall back on; once you've seen his fastball, you can hit it next time, and he doesn't have enough secondary pitches to keep hitters guessing. You can do the same thing with these players' pitch counts:

Pitcher 1-25 pitches 26-50 pitches 51-75 pitches 76-100 pitches
Ross .690 .758 .929 1.188
McCarthy .655 .739 .590 .874
Parker .695 .642 .619 .739
Milone .714 .804 .619 .699

McCarthy and Milone have their best splits when their pitch counts reach 51-75, and Parker gets consistently better as his pitch count rises, until he gets above 75. For a starting pitcher, the early innings are about establishing a rhythm, and once you're in your groove you can (usually) coast from there.

There's something else I notice about these tables, though. Among these four pitchers, Ross has the best OPS allowed the first time through the order. Yeah, he's terrible the 2nd and 3rd times through, but that's only notable because he's so good in the first go-around. He's also right there with the other guys in terms of OPS allowed in the first 25 pitches. What if the team could isolate that first time through the order, and those first 25 pitches, while leaving out the disaster that consistently occurs thereafter?

Well, you can. It's pretty simple. Just take him out after an inning or two. If he is only effective for up to three innings, then don't ask him to throw six. This is about as basic as arithmetic gets. Here's the best part, though: by moving Ross to the bullpen, those first 25 pitches, which were already quite good, might get even better. As a reliever, Ross can ditch whichever secondary pitches aren't working for him, and stick with a 2-pitch arsenal (fastball/slider). As a reliever, Ross doesn't have to pace himself for a long outing; many starters who convert to relief can reach back and add a couple of extra miles to their fastballs, since they don't have to save anything for later in the game. As a reliever, Ross doesn't have to face anyone twice in one game, which means that hitters never get a second chance to make adjustments against him. As a reliever, Ross might be good.

The conversion began yesterday. Ross came out of the pen to record 6 outs, and helped the River Cats clinch the PCL division title. During a season in which many folks here on AN have called for the return of the 2-inning reliever, guys like Ross, Jordan Norberto, and Travis Blackley are a breath of fresh air in an industry (bullpen management) which seems to operate on some nonsensical version of auto-pilot. A lot of credit has to go to Bob Melvin, who hasn't hesitated to use any of his relievers for more than 3 outs in the right situations. This article isn't about progressive bullpen management, though. It's about Tyson Ross.

Ross was not a good starter. He might be a good reliever. Heck, he might be an excellent reliever. The A's did their due diligence by investigating what he could and couldn't do on the mound, and now they've placed him in the position where he is most likely to succeed. Do you like it? I love it. I'm rooting for Ross.

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