Tyson Ross will make his 12th start of the 2015 season tonight in Cincinnati. Through his first 11, he has a 3.79 DRA, which pegs him as roughly league-average: He places 55th of 110 qualifying pitchers (50 or more innings pitched). He’s also made a surprising number of league-average individual appearances: the mean Game Score this season has been 52, and all 11 of Ross’s starts have resulted in Game Scores between 48 and 62.
Do you know how many other pitchers have started a season with a streak of 11 starts in which the Game Scores all fell into that range? None. Do you know how many times a pitcher has ever had 11 consecutive such starts? Never. In fact, even if you widen the parameters to include starts falling between a 45 Game Score and a 65, there have only been four streaks in MLB history longer than the one Ross takes into his face-off with the Reds:
16 games, by Ken Johnson, 1967 (league-average GSc that year: 55)
13 games, Zach McAllister, 2011–12 (average those years: 51)
13 games, John Cerutti, 1989 (average that year: 53)
12 games, Glendon Rusch, 2002 (average that year: 49)
Ross does have 71 strikeouts in 287 batters faced, though, and is running the highest groundball rate of his career (not to mention the second-highest of those 110 qualifying pitchers). He’s allowed only three home runs, and behind both that and his impressive strikeout rate, he has a 3.20 FIP that stands closely in line with his FIP for each of the last two seasons, when he had an aggregate ERA of 2.95 in over 320 innings. He’s still using more or less the same sinker-slider repertoire, each pitch as nasty as ever. His walk rate is slightly inflated and his BABIP is badly so, but in general, he continues to dominate hitters. Over the winter, Ross was considered a top-of-the-rotation starter, and a lot of the things he did to earn that mantle are unchanged.
Yet, as I documented at the top, the big picture is a profoundly uninspiring one. Ross has become almost exactly an average pitcher. How?
The short answer is that he takes too long to deliver the ball home with runners on base. Way too long. Way, way, way too long. Recall that one component of DRA—our new, context-sensitive, world-beating pitching statistic—is control of the running game. That’s a shared responsibility between the pitcher and the catcher, and the designers of DRA (Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Turkenkopf) took care to apportion it responsibly. That’s why the effect on overall DRA tends to be small. We measure the Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA), which credits or debits the pitcher for his role in preventing runners from attempting stolen bases. Of the 1,000-plus pitchers who have appeared in the majors this season, only 35 have a TRAA higher than 5 percent, or lower than -5 percent (i.e. they either discouraged or encouraged steal attempts by more than that number). In fact, the second-highest TRAA in baseball (in other words, the second-worst holder of opposing runners) belongs to Craig Kimbrel, who sees opponents run 10.4 percent more often than they would against a league-average hurler.
Tyson Ross’s TRAA is 15.3 percent. It’s nearly half again the second-highest value in the league! He’s seen 25 opponents run against him; only four other pitchers in baseball have seen even 13 runners take off, and Jon Lester (who’s in second place, right where you’d expect him to be) has only seen 17 guys run. Opponents have only tried 22 steals against the St. Louis Cardinals all season.
Again, catchers have a role to play in slowing down opposing runners, and Derek Norris is among the worst at it. That helps explain how Ross is so gallingly far ahead of the field in the raw numbers. Even his TRAA, though, which focuses on his role, sets him utterly apart from all fellow pitchers. Isolate successful steals, as we also do in formulating DRA, and the effect becomes even more glaring. The second-highest rate of runner exploitation in the league belongs to Antonio Bastardo, at 10.6 percent. Ross’s Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA) is 16.9 percent. Opponents’ 21 successful steals against him are more than six teams have stolen all year, and tied with the Twins and Angels. (And counting the Angels is cheating: They stole three of their 21 off Ross himself).
Ross doesn’t have a Jon Lester problem. He uses a pickoff move, and while it isn’t a good one, it isn’t the ugliest I’ve seen. All that’s wrong is that once Ross decides to go home with the ball, he has a very deliberate rhythm, a high leg kick and too predictable a timing pattern as he goes into his delivery. It’s outrageously easy to find the moment at which to go, and once one goes, there’s very little danger of being thrown out.
It sure feels like this will be an unsustainable thing. Despite everyone knowing he can’t throw to first, Jon Lester is just ninth-worst in the league in SRAA, and 10th in TRAA. If he can’t be consistently exploited to a level the rest of the league can’t even approach, surely Ross can’t either.
Then again, this isn’t new. Ross had a 10.1 percent TRAA last season, the second-highest in baseball. His SRAA was 3.5 percent, the sixth-highest figure in MLB. He had a known point of weakness and was a target for opposing runners even during his breakout season. This year, he seems to have become utterly defenseless against those runners. Barring some major adjustment from Ross, there’s no reason for opponents to stop running, and it’s unlikely that they will.