So the Cardinals made a very surprising move yesterday. How surprising, you ask? Umm, let’s see. It’s...more surprising than ‘Plastic Love’ becoming a strange sort of internet phenomenon, but less surprising than how fun it is to listen to hours of random K-Mart in-store music. And certainly less surprising than the Spanish Inquisition, seeing as how no one ever expects them.
What the Cardinals did was claim Tyson Ross from the San Diego Padres on waivers. Anyone who had, “Tyson Ross waiver claim,” as the first post-July 31 transaction made by the Cardinals, please raise your hands.
Liars! All of you!
Sorry about that; I shouldn’t accuse any of you horrible liars of being liars. But seriously, Tyson Ross? That’s not a move I think anyone really saw coming.
And there are reasons why we might not have really expected Tyson Ross to be joining the Cardinals; consider, for a moment, the fact that Tyson Ross is not a very good pitcher anymore, it appears. That’s a bit of a hangup right there, one would think. On top of that, if there’s one thing the Cardinals have an abundance of, even at this stage of the game, is pitching depth. Yes, Carlos Martinez is on the disabled list, as is Michael Wacha. But even so, Miles Mikolas has been a revelation as a rotation anchor, and Jack Flaherty is emerging as a star. Luke Weaver has been up and down, but the peripherals still point toward a league-average sort of pitcher, if the dynamo he looked to be last season.
Beyond those three, you have a clutch of young pitchers all vying for time in the rotation. Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, and John Gant have all made starts, while Dakota Hudson has been a starter every step of the way up until now and should, in your author’s ever so humble opinion, be in line for a shot at taking a turn in the rotation sometime this season. So even in a season in which Adam Wainwright has been a non-factor, Carlos Martinez has been on and off the DL multiple times, and Michael Wacha has now missed a month and a half and isn’t in sight yet, the Cards are still going seven deep in terms of rotation options. Now, admittedly, some of those might not exactly be rotation options you’re clamouring to see, but then again, is Tyson Ross at this point in his career?
On the other hand, it’s also possible to look at that war chest of young pitching and see a reason to bring Ross in. After all, when you have a group of young arms you think you’ll be relying on for the next few years as part of your starting rotation, it’s probably not a bad idea to protect those arms if at all possible, and a waiver claim of a 31 year old hurler on the downside of an injury-riddled career is a fine insurance policy against overuse of your future assets.
It’s also possible, of course, that the Cardinals really believe Ross can help them win in the short term, and they haven’t given up on this season just yet. And that’s at least a somewhat reasonable stance to take, if we consider how well the Redbirds have played over their last three series. Three series, ten games, all against teams with winning records who are either in playoff position or playoff contention, and the Cards just went 7-3 over that stretch. (They really should have gone 8-2, considering how badly they outplayed Pittsburgh in game one of the series, and just how many opportunities to blow the game open they missed on, but I digress. Sometimes nights like that just happen, even if you aren’t being sabotaged from within.) They’re only 10-8 since the All-Star break, but this is pretty clearly a club trending in the right direction since not only making a managerial switch, but also reshaping the roster, at least on the margins. So perhaps they still feel like they’ve got a run in them, the rest of the NL is bunched up but entirely vulnerable, and Tyson Ross can help bring...something to the club.
Which leads us, pretty obviously, to maybe the biggest question: is it realistic to hope for Ross to make a positive contribution? I mean, we’ve seen veteran pitchers have feel-good moments before; this pickup feels very similar to both John Smoltz in 2009 and Jeff Weaver in 2006. And I have to admit, Ross coming in and having a seven-strikeouts-in-a-row game does sound like a lot of fun.
But is it really realistic to expect Ross to make a positive impact? That’s tough to say. It’s possible Mike Maddux has had his eye on Ross for years, and potentially sees something he can help Ross work on or out, which would be exciting. More likely, though, this was strictly an opportunistic move by the front office to add a short-term piece for free, and we shouldn’t be expecting a whole lot.
Let’s look at the numbers, shall we?
The bad news is this: Ross’s number this year are not very good. And they’re not, “not very good,” as in, “Oh, look how badly this guy has been screwed by batted-ball luck, and he should be a lot better than he has been,” they’re not very good as in, “Oh, I just opened up FanGraphs, and those numbers aren’t very good.”
Here’s the skinny: a 4.45 ERA, 4.55 FIP, and 4.24 xFIP. So we might have a little optimism if we think he’s been unlucky on home runs this year and should be better, but I have to admit that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of why we should be excited about this move. Before Ross’s arm troubles began in earnest, back in that 2013-’15 window when he was one of the most productive pitchers in baseball, Ross both struck out a lot of hitters and rolled up tremendous groundball rates. In those three outstanding seasons with the Padres, he ran groundball percentages between 55 and 62 percent, roughly. Combine that with strikeout rates that typically ran right around a quarter of hitters faced, and you have a very successful recipe. Don’t let the ball leave the infield most of the time, and you’re going to put up some impressive numbers.
Unfortunately, Ross has seen both his grounders and strikeouts go mostly by the wayside; his K rate is 20.2% this year, while his GB% is the lowest of his career, at 43.8%. His velocity this season is roughly the same as it was last year, but that’s not saying much; he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball for the Rangers in 2017, and the velocity may have held steady since then, but it’s a far cry from where he was in his glory days, when his fastball would park about three miles per hour higher on average. It may be the new paradigm of swings geared toward lifting the low pitch, or it may be a matter of Ross simply no longer having the same kind of divebombing prowess he used to, but he can no longer force hitters to put the ball on the ground enough to make up for the fact the strikeouts aren’t what they used to be.
Now, this all sounds pretty pessimistic, and it sort of is, really. But there were positive signs for Ross this season as well, particularly in the early going. Over the first two months of the season, Tyson was one of the better stories in baseball, a bona fide comeback player of the year candidate, as he ran a 3.29/3.31 ERA/FIP split through the end of May, along with a strikeout rate just a hair under 25%. It looked, for all intents and purposes at the time, that Tyson Ross was officially back. He had wandered in the desert after thoracic outlet surgery, and had found his way back to prominence. Ice the champagne and give the band their cue, because this guy was going to take home some hardware. Even through the end of June, Ross looked strong, and pretty good. His strikeout rate going into July was almost 23%, and he was carrying an 85 ERA-, which is nothing to sneeze at.
And then came July. And July, she was very cruel.
Ross made five starts in the month of July. His strikeout to walk ratio was 1:1 (13.5% on both, specifically), he allowed 28 hits in 23 innings pitched, gave up five homers, and posted an 8.87 ERA for the month. I don’t really even have anything smart and pithy to say about that stat line. That’s just painful.
The biggest concern, at least for me, would have to be that Ross’s ability to execute deteriorated so much due to fatigue from pitching so much this season, roughly 50 innings more at this point than he threw altogether from the beginning of 2016 up until this year. If he’s just worn down, or the arm isn’t really holding up, there’s not a ton you can do about it. Then again, if it wasn’t fatigue, and was really just a bad stretch of pitching, then maybe there’s something salvageable in Ross’s season.
I have to say, I would be much more optimistic at this point if I thought Ross was going into the bullpen, but I doubt that’s the case. A mid- or late-career move to relief work might be just what the doctor ordered for Ross, who could see his fastball tick back up toward the mid-90s and the slider sharpen back up, even though it’s still mostly been pretty good this season. I’m roughly 95% sure that Ross is a lock for the rotation, though — at least in the short term — and that makes me nervous. Perturbed, even. Actually, pitching in relief isn’t what the doctor ordered for Ross; what the doctor ordered for Ross was to have a rib removed to free up space for a blood vessel. But making that Smoltz transition to the ‘pen after a career-altering injury scare could also be heavily beneficial for Ross, too. Doctor’s orders not necessary.
The bottom line is this: this was a zero-cost move by the Cardinals, essentially, and they’re taking a chance on a guy who has greatness in his past, even if it probably seems a lot longer ago than it actually was. They didn’t trade anything to the Padres for him, and his salary is minimal. It’s very hard to criticise the front for a move when the risk side of the ledger is so close to being empty. Then again, if he comes in, makes a couple starts, and continues to allow runs at a pace of nearly one per inning, then even that free investment could prove very costly.