The Transformation Of RRS

Dave · September 17, 2009 at 8:06 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


20 Responses to “The Transformation Of RRS”

  1. lailaihei on September 17th, 2009 8:11 am

    It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a 2-3 win starter going forward, I think our lovable Aussie has turned into a cheap asset.

  2. robbbbbb on September 17th, 2009 8:19 am

    That’s a great rate, but as you note, it’s four starts. If he’s showing a league-average GB%, that’s a little different than a 49% GB rate.

    At what point do we declare that Small Sample Size Theater is over?

  3. Dave on September 17th, 2009 8:27 am

    I don’t expect him to have a 49% rate going forward. It’s the fact that he’s capable of posting a 49% rate over four starts that’s pretty remarkable, given how extreme a flyball guy he was as a relief pitcher, though.

    We’ve now got 22 starts from Hyphen in the majors, with a GB% of 43% during those starts. Given how fast batted ball stats adjust, that’s no longer a small sample. He’s definitely not the same pitcher he was out of the pen.

  4. robbbbbb on September 17th, 2009 8:31 am

    So, with low walk and strikeout rates, and a league-average groundball rate, RRS can be a league-average pitcher? I’ll take that. That sounds like a very good plan indeed.

    Especially if the M’s keep running out an excellent infield defense. This is the kind of pitcher that’s going to magnify the M’s investment in defense.

  5. AssumedName on September 17th, 2009 9:00 am

    The Washburn comparisons always make me smile when I think of the one real delta between the two guys: paycheck.

  6. Slippery Elmer on September 17th, 2009 9:24 am

    RRS has given up 9 HR all season. Since joining the Tigers Washburn has surrendered 12 dongs.

  7. eponymous coward on September 17th, 2009 9:29 am

    So, with low walk and strikeout rates, and a league-average groundball rate, RRS can be a league-average pitcher?

    A mid-rotation starter is probably an above-average pitcher, given that a typical mid-rotation starter would be an effective bullpen guy in that role, but the reverse is NOT generally true (most bullpen guys are failed starters, and they often are failed starters at the minor league level).

    I’d argue that a rotation with a true #1 (Felix), two mid-rotation guys (two out of three of RRS, Snell and Morrow), and 3-4 backend options (mix and match French, Silva, Vargas, Olson, Jakubauskas, Fister) is getting pretty close to being what you need to legitimately contend, if you surround that staff with a really tight defense and adequate or better offense. At the very least, the rotation isn’t going to be a DRAG on the team.

    Ideally, you’d like to have an additional arm in the mix for that mid-rotation slot (given that Morrow/Snell are by no means locks to perform at that level), but I’m not convinced that the best way to address that is playing multi-million dollar roulette to see if one of Bedard/Sheets/Harden/etc. can contribute 150 IP and/or 3 WAR before they make their yearly visit to Dr. Andrews in Birmingham, given a limited universe of dollars for Mariner salary. I think we are better off trying to make our current mid-rotation starter candidates pay off at this point.

  8. Adam B. on September 17th, 2009 9:53 am

    I’d be interested in knowing what the writers think about the M’s potentially pursuing a high-risk high-reward pitcher like Bedard, Harden or Sheets in free-agency?

    Certainly none of those guys are locks to perform at any given level, and the Mariners are dealing with a limited free-agent budget, but a starting pitcher with #2 upside is definitely something this team could use and it’s not like there are many quality free-agent candidates for this teams other gaping holes.

  9. philosofool on September 17th, 2009 11:20 am

    To help see the difference that being a ground ball pitcher makes, one can use Nate Silver’s QERA. The formula is a little crazy, but it works basically like FIP, only it uses GB% instead of HR/9.

    QERA = (2.69 – 3.4K% + 3.88BB% -.66GB%)^2

    Yep, that’s squared at the end. Anyway, it will give a number on the ERA scale (you have to play with the constant term 2.69 just a little from season to season, but it’s not a lot of play, so we can ignore it) based on those rates (K and BB in terms of each per batter faces, GB in terms of percentage of batted balls in play.) Using this formula, we can see how a pitcher’s ability to get ground balls has influenced his run allowance.

  10. Dave on September 17th, 2009 11:24 am

    Or, you could just use xFIP, which is way easier.

  11. eponymous coward on September 17th, 2009 11:26 am

    Well, there’s a tangential discussion here.

    However- salary flexibility does NOT solely have to be used for free agents (for example: the Snell/Wilson trade). I tend to think there are some paths for the Mariners to add talent that don’t necessarily depend on drawing the pitching injury history/free agency equivalent of drawing to an inside straight. That’s why RRS developing into someone you can project into a mid-rotation slot is an encouraging trend, since a rotation with one ace + two midlevel guys + enough back-end fodder is actually pretty solid (the 2000-2003 Mariners arguably had 3 midlevel guys in various combinations of Sele, Garcia, Moyer, Pineiro, and random assortments of Halamas, Abbotts and Franklins filling out the back end, and they consistently won 90+).

  12. Adam B. on September 17th, 2009 11:40 am

    The 2001 Mariners had a similarly excellent defense behind those pitchers, but you can’t say our offense is anything close to resembling what we had that year.

    If the Mariners can actually get an above average offense next year–Which is probably a stretch baring any more miraculous developments, then a rotation of Felix, Morrow, Snell, RRS, and French/Silva/Vargas/etc. has a serious shot at contending.

    If the improvements are only marginal, you’re still just looking at an 85-90 win second-place team.

  13. joser on September 17th, 2009 12:06 pm

    So do we give some credit to the Tacoma pitching coaches? Of course RRS gets most of the credit because he’s actually doing it, but did he realize on his own what he needed to do? Or is it possible this was the pitcher he used to be, but when he was working out of the pen he just threw harder (and ended up higher in the zone)?

    His increase in GB% hasn’t come just at the expense of FB%; his LD rate has dropped as well.
    If he no longer resembles Washburn, who does he resemble now? Just looking at this year’s GB/FB/LD rates, there are a bunch of good pitchers right around him, but he doesn’t get the srike-outs they do. So is he now Sean West? Johnny Cueto? Homer Bailey?

    Actually, in terms of strike-out rate and batted ball profile (2009 numbers only), he kind of looks like… Jamie Moyer!

    (Also: an entire post on RRS without once using the Niehausian “big Aussie”?)

  14. eponymous coward on September 17th, 2009 12:36 pm

    The 2001 Mariners had a similarly excellent defense behind those pitchers

    … which is why I pointed out a STRETCH of seasons. Now, granted, Edgar+Olerud+Cameron+Boone is a hell of a starting point, but the Mariners survived having guys like David Bell and Dan Wilson in their lineup, plus the LFer du jour.

    Also, the Mariners went from having a pretty bad defense last year to one of the top defenses in the AL. They also went from one of the worst offenses in the AL in 2004-2006 (bottom of the league) to ~average in 2007, with Bill Bavasi as the GM, so I don’t see that improving like that in 2010 is impossible.

  15. wabbles on September 17th, 2009 12:52 pm

    “The 2001 Mariners had a similarly excellent defense behind those pitchers, but you can’t say our offense is anything close to resembling what we had that year.”

    The 2001 Mariners (motto “Two outs? So what?”) also had a ridiculous and unrepeatable batting average with runners in scoring position. It helped make up for the team’s 169 home run total. So I don’t know if repeating that offense is out of question if the baseball gods are nice to us.

  16. Adam B. on September 17th, 2009 1:37 pm

    A few points in response.

    Both the 2001 and 2007 teams had huge differences in projected and actual wins.

    To extend the card analogy, you can stand on a 15 or 16 and win, but that’s not how you play winning Blackjack or baseball.

    The Mariners can make some marginal moves and bide their time til younger talent develops and some of the millstone contracts come off the books, and there is a good chance that the Mariners could contend for a long time next year as they have this year while doing so; But a well run organization knows that building a team to play in October means leaving very little to chance.

    This means that the Mariners need a whole lot more “certainties” and a whole lot less “hopefully’s” before they should consider themselves a finished product.

    Free-agency is probably the worst way to acquire talent, but that doesn’t eliminate it from the discussion.

  17. Breadbaker on September 17th, 2009 1:53 pm

    If I’m a lefthanded starter pitching to a bunch of righties and Yuniesky Betancourt is my shortstop and Raul Ibanez is my leftfielder, I might pitch differently than if I’m the same guy and Jack Wilson is my shortstop and any of the guys the M’s have had in left this year are there in place of Raul. That I would make those adjustments is a credit to my intelligence.

  18. JMK on September 17th, 2009 1:54 pm

    Thanks for giving me some proof for the optimism I’ve been feeling every time RRS takes the mound Dave.

  19. eponymous coward on September 17th, 2009 2:25 pm

    We’re going a bit further afield from RRS potentially breaking out of his backend starter status, but…

    Both the 2001 and 2007 teams had huge differences in projected and actual wins.

    Yeah, but I don’t think that’s a particular function of “their offense really sucked”, and again, I mentioned a STRETCH of seasons where the M’s were well above .500 without an ace of King Felix’s caliber, and a bunch of midlevel starters, not just one season. The 2007 team maybe has a better case for that, but even there, it was a decent team offense.

    The other factor here is that 1B/LF/DH are typically fairly easy to find decent-offense players if you are willing to reject “AAAA” labels, or are willing to platoon. So some of the M’s problems on offense are fairly straightforward fixes. I’d be more worried about 3B/C (3B because Beltre’s a really good player, and C because our catching options mostly suck.)

    To extend the card analogy, you can stand on a 15 or 16 and win, but that’s not how you play winning Blackjack or baseball.

    Actually, that CAN be the mathematically correct play to make when your opponent is showing certain cards, in that it optimizes your chances of winning (because you are guaranteed not to bust, and they have a proportionally higher chance of busting if they draw, than the risk than they will beat you). While it’s true that baseball is not blackjack, sometimes the winning move IS not to jump off a cliff if your fellow GMs start thinking it’s an awesome idea.

    That being said, I wouldn’t definitively rule out signing a FA pitcher coming off of injury- perhaps in the offseason that WILL turn out to be a reasonable move, and market conditions will make those players a relative bargain compared to a lead-footed slugger. My feeling, though is that there are reasonable moves that would both add or retain good players (I say retain because I think it’s not out of the realm of possibility Beltre could stay a Mariner) that don’t just involve ponying up millions based on an MRI… and we’ve seen what relying on a glass-armed pitcher with awesome stuff has gotten us.

  20. bat guano on September 17th, 2009 2:51 pm

    I tend to agree that it would be wiser to spend whatever money is available this offseason on position players (whether acquired via trade or through free agency)than on free agent pitching. My opinion is based partly on optimism about the futures of RRS and Morrow in the starting rotation (and to a lesser extent, Snell), and partly on the fact that pitchers in general are far less reliable than hitting and defense. A couple of reliable bats in the middle of the order should actually make us a contender. That said, if we could get a top pitcher with injury issues like Bedard (or Harden or Sheets) for a low base salary with the possibility of much more based upon innings pitched/performance incentives, it would be silly not to consider it.

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