How to Subtlely Become an Ace: Ross Stripling

Should-Be-All-Star, Ross Stripling has had A Historically Good Start to the Season.

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These types of articles usually write themselves. First, you find a pitcher who is drastically outperforming his usual levels, then scroll through his profiles until something jumps out at you and finally. you try to present it in an interesting way.

Los Angeles Dodgers starter, Ross Stripling at least fits that first step just fine.

Through two seasons in the big leagues, Ross Stripling had emerged as a useful, if generic, right handed swingman. The former 5th round draft pick kept an ERA slightly below 4, while maintaining an average strike out rate and a walk rate slightly better. I could use up a lot of words to illustrate what has happened to Ross Stripling this season but it’s probably better if I just show you:

Source: Fangraphs.com

Above is a simple plot of Stripling’s ERA by season (Blue) against the MLB Average (Grey). As you can see the right-hander was essentially a league average pitcher in 2016. A move to the bullpen in 2017 made him a little better and then just as you all expected, through 13 starts (and 11 relief appearances), Ross Stripling has suddenly become one of the best pitchers in baseball (small sample size be damned).

While I glossed over Ross Stripling’s 2016 and ’17 performances, it’s probably worth spending some time to talk about just how good he has been in 2018. In 89 innings this season, Stripling has pitched to a 2.22 ERA, with 10.38 K/9 and just 1.31 BB/9. He currently sports a 25.1 K-BB% that’s 6th best in baseball sandwiched between James Paxton and Jacob DeGrom. In just those 89 innings, Stripling has produced 2.4 fWAR after combing for 1.8 fWAR in the two seasons prior. Stripling has also posted an excellent 49% ground ball rate – good for 13th best in baseball – though he did that in 2017… and 2016. And that brings me to the headline, Ross Stripling looks to be largely the same pitcher

Look past the surface numbers and nothing about Ross Stripling looks particularly different. His batted ball profile is the same, his plate discipline numbers are the same – even his tunneling metrics look similar. Let me again show this to you visually:

Source: Fangraphs.com

The plot above shows a bunch of different underlying metrics for Ross Stripling over each of the last three years. These don’t quite capture everything when it comes to pitching but they’re usually the first place you look when a pitcher is having a breakout. Surprisingly however, there’s nothing here – all of these metrics are basically straight lines (apart from zone contact which has actually gotten worse this year).

Usually when a pitcher enjoys dramatic improvements without any change in the underlying skills, you would attribute it to luck. But while luck is certainly playing a role here – Stripling has stranded 89% of runners this season – that can’t explain the drastic increase in strikeout rate, especially when it coincides with a move away from the bullpen. With that then, let’s try to answer how Stripling is striking out a career high number of hitters without any noticeable change in the metrics above.

Big Breakers, Reverse Splits and Funky Sequences

To start answering the question we posed above, we must first workout who it is that is being struck out and in the case of the Dodger’s starter, it’s left-handers who have suffered most greatly in 2018. Where, Stripling’s strike out rate has held steady against right-handers, it has jumped 9 percentage points against opposite handed hitters, all the way to 31% – that’s huge.

Pitchers posting reverse splits like this are usually either change-up or curveball pitchers and while Stripling has reintroduced his change-up this year its his curveball that has taken a big step forward. Firstly, the pitch is getting 4 inches more drop than 2017, despite showing the same velocity and spin rate, as well as an extra half-inch or so of horizontal movement. Then there’s the results:

Data from Fangraphs.com

Stripling’s curveball has increased in every metric above. It would appear that the extra break has given the right-hander the confidence to throw the pitch in the zone more often, while causing the hitter to chase and whiff on the pitch at higher rates. That combination of  factors tends to bear favourable results for pitchers and that appears to be the case for Stripling in 2018.

There’s one more small thing related to the curveball that is worth pointing out so I’ll go over it briefly here – Stripling is setting up his curveball in a rather unconventional way. Most of you will be aware that the most common pitch paired with a curveball is a fastball, often a high one. Unsurprisingly, Ross Stripling throws a fastball and he often used it to pair with his curveball in 2017, using the pair 50 times against left-handed hitters. However, in 2018, Stripling has significantly favoured paring his slider with his curveball, using the fastball/curveball pair just 7 times compared to 49 curveball/slider sequence. It’s not a particularly common sequence but for Stripling it appears to be effective.

This probably isn’t enough to say that Ross Stripling will keep pitching like an ace – he probably won’t. After all, he can’t keep stranding 90% of base runners. But there is something we can point to as a tangible improvement. Ross Stripling probably isn’t an ace but it would appear he’s cemented himself as a quality starting pitcher.

Feature Image Credit: Nicole Vasquez – Flickr

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