Ryan Rowland-Smith, Starter
While it hasn’t been officially announced yet, everyone expects Ryan-Rowland Smith to get the call as the replacement for Miguel Batista in the rotation tomorrow. While we’ve endorsed the move, we haven’t laid out what we expect from Rowland-Smith and where we see his future value as a starter.
RR-S has several distinct characteristics – the most obvious of those is his extreme flyball tendencies. He primilary throws a four seam fastball, and he locates it up in the zone more often than not, which leads to a lot of fly balls to the outfield. In fact, his 31% career GB% as a major league reliever is one of the lowest totals you’ll find in baseball. Generally, we prefer groundball pitchers, because all things equal, you’d rather have a pitcher keep the ball on the ground than risk letting a batter turn on one of those misplaced high fastballs and launch a home run. However, that doesn’t mean that flyball pitchers are inherently bad – Johan Santana is a flyball pitcher, for instance.
Most good flyball pitchers succeed by racking up the strikeouts. Balls up in the zone are harder to make contact with, and the four seam fastball is thrown a bit harder than its two seam cousin, so there’s a pretty decent correlation between flyball rates and strikeout rates. That’s been true of Rowland-Smith as well, as he’s whiffed 84 batters in 94 innings since joining the M’s last year. His ability to miss bats has offset his ball in play tendencies and mediocre command.
So, what will a move to the rotation do? Like we mentioned in the Morrow thread, there’s a pretty big difference between starting and relieving, and some pitchers aren’t well suited to making the transition. Rowland-Smith, however, shouldn’t have to make as many adjustments as Morrow will, because even while being used as a reliever, he used a starting pitcher’s approach.
He mixes four pitches (fastball, slider, curve, change) and has specific attacks for LH and RH hitters. He uses his change-up primarily versus right-handed batters, and it’s the pitch that allows him to avoid the lefty specialist role. In fact, he’s been better against right-handed hitters than lefties during his time in Seattle, thanks in large part to how effective his change-up already is.
Against lefties, he uses the slider as his second pitch, going away from the even breaking ball distribution he has against opposite handed hitters. The slider is a true strikeout pitch against LH hitters because he’s able to keep it running down while staying on the inside part of the plate. Because he throws about 37% breaking balls to lefties, and his curve is inconsistent, he can occasionally hang one that gets whacked, but this will actually be minimized as a starter since most managers will instinctively load their line-up with RH hitters on days he’s starting.
So, we shouldn’t see RR-S have to pitch that much differently than he was as a reliever, and since he was already having to pace himself to get through multiple innings, he’ll see less of a drop in velocity than Morrow will. He’s going to have to cut down on the walks if he’s going to be able to go more than 5-6 innings, though, and he knows this, so we’ll probably see him give in more often and throw strikes in situations where he was willing to walk a hitter as a reliever.
Overall, I think we should expect something like a 10% BB% (a little higher than average), an 18% K% (a bit above average), and a 30% GB%, which will lead to him giving up between 1.0 and 1.2 HR/9. Basically, Jarrod Washburn with a few more walks, a few more strikeouts, and a few more flyballs. He profiles as a #5 starter who probably won’t be efficient enough to work deep into games, and honestly, there’s not a lot of upside for much beyond that. Safeco will help him quite a bit, as those right-handed hitters putting the ball in the air will get a lot of long flyouts to left center, but on the road, it could get a bit dicey.
So, why are we endorsing the move to the rotation? Because the Mariners, more than anything else they’ve done wrong in building their roster, have to realize that it’s foolish to keep throwing long term, big money contracts at back-end starting pitchers. The Washburn/Silva/Batista contracts, as well as trading for Horacio Ramirez, have crippled this franchise the last two years. If Rowland-Smith can post a 5.00 FIP and give the team 140-170 innings at the back end of the rotation for the league minimum, then the M’s can hopefully learn that #5 starters are just really easy to find, and there’s no reason to expend valuable resources on mediocre veterans when their performance can be replicated by a lot of guys stuck in Triple-A.
In short, Ryan Rowland-Smith isn’t the savior of this rotation, and we don’t expect him to turn into anything more than a role player, but it’s the ability to get useful performances from guys like RR-S that allows good franchises to throw a lot of money at superstars and still be able to keep a reasonable payroll. RR-S isn’t great, but to this organization, his success as a starter could quite valuable.