The Transformation Of RRS
Over the last couple of years, we’ve made a bunch of comparisons between Ryan Rowland-Smith and Jarrod Washburn, and for good reason – they’re very similar pitchers. Both throw four seam fastballs in the high-80s and big loopy curveballs, are pitch to contact strike throwers, and their success is predicated on home run avoidance. In fact, watching Hyphen work deep in the game the last four starts, it’s nearly impossible to not see pieces of Washburn when he’s on the hill. RRS, right now, looks a lot like pre-trade Washburn did.
Just with one fairly notable exception. Ryan Rowland-Smith has turned himself into a groundball pitcher.
In 2007, pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, Hyphen posted a 33.6% GB%, one of the lowest marks in the league. He pitched up in the zone, and since his fastball averaged 91 out of the bullpen, he was able to rack up a bunch of strikeouts. It was an effective combination for him, and he continued to pitch that way out of the bullpen last year, actually getting even a bit more extreme – his GB% as a relief pitcher in 2008 was just 29%, a crazy low total.
But, after the M’s sent him to Triple-A to convert him to a starting pitcher, he came back a different guy. Over the 10 starts he made to finish last season, 46% of his 206 balls in play were hit on the ground. By moving to the rotation, he gave up some velocity, but also started using his fastball differently. I’m sure he’s smart enough to realize that he’s not going to get an 88 MPH high fastball by too many people, so he started locating it down in the zone more often, trading strikeouts for groundballs.
That’s continued this year, and especially of late. His GB% for the 2009 season stands at 41%, just a tick below league average, but he’s at 49% ground balls over his last four starts, when he’s been working deep into ballgames and solidifying his role as an innings eater. Between 2008 and 2009, his GB% as a starter is 43%. That’s a far cry from the 31% he was posting as a relief pitcher.
It may not sound like much, but it makes a pretty big difference. As a pitch to contact guy, RRS is going to give up a lot of balls in play. By limiting the amount of those that are hit in the air, he’s limiting the number of home runs he’s going to allow, and that’s really the key to his success. When he’s pounding the strike zone like he has been lately (67% strikes in his last four starts), the only hope opponents have is to string together a few hits and then park one over the fence. But that last component becomes less likely if they’re chopping the ball in the dirt.
As a starting pitcher, Ryan Rowland-Smith is like Jarrod Washburn in some ways, but he’s also proving he’s got the ability to get grounders with some regularity, and that strikes+groundballs skillset gives him the potential to be better than the back-end starter that Washburn has always been.
Hyphen’s giving us significant reasons for optimism. If you were worried about the lack of mid-rotation starters in the organization, we might just have found one now.