Ross Stripling, A Fitting Blue Jay

It’s been mentioned time and time again that the Blue Jays have a “type” when targeting and acquiring starting pitching.

They have been targeting pitchers with lower velocity who have a large pitch mix. Their acquisition of Robbie Ray didn’t quite fit that, but their second pitching add of trade deadline day sure does.

Ross Stripling relies on four different pitches, fastball (44.6%), curve (28.8%), change-up (16.2%) and slider (9.8%). He doesn’t throw with much velocity, his four-seamer averages 91.8 mph, the 33rd slowest among 157 right handed pitchers who have thrown at least 250 pitches this season, per Baseball Savant. He also brings versatility, having thrown 290.2 innings as a starter and 130.0 out of the bullpen in his career. It should be noted that he has been just a starter this season. The results have not been there. His 7.23 FIP is tied with Ray for the worst in baseball, among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings.

Prior to this season, Stripling was really good. From 2016-19 over 387.0 innings Stripling had a 3.51 ERA, a 3.60 FIP and 3.49 xFIP. He was one of the best arms in baseball and someone many people wanted to see traded away from the Dodgers so he could get a real chance to be a full-time starter. Stripling was traded in February to the Angels as a side part to the Mookie Betts trade. Once the Betts trade was redone the Angels pulled out of their part of the deal, sending Stripling back to the Dodgers. Stripling may have felt a little bit slighted after that trade fell through.

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Who’s to say how that failed trade affected Stripling off-the field, but on the field nothing has gone right for him this season. He’s striking out fewer batters, walking more, allowing fewer groundballs and more homers. As Ben Clemons noted in his reaction to the trade at Fangraphs, Stripling has lost the ability to strikeout right-handed batters. His strikeout rate against righties is down 8.6% to 14.1%.

“The culprit appears to be two-fold: righties are swinging less at his curveball, previously a go-to out pitch, and missing less often when they swing at his fastball.

That fastball used to be an analytical darling, not quite the pure backspin ideal but not far from it. It’s lost a bit of vertical movement and gained fade, while his curveball has done the opposite: it now falls more but with less glove-side break. It’s a frustrating development for someone who relies on those two pitches mirroring each other.”

Clemons mentions that Stripling’s release point on his fastball has been inconsistent this year. It’s not just the fastball; he’s changed his release point on all of his pitches this season.

A release point change could explain why his pitches have changed shape. Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote about Stripling and what happened to his slider this season. Stripling’s slider usage is down under 10% for the first time in his career. He’s lost two miles an hour off the pitch, as well as having the pitch drop seven inches more and being released from a new point. It’s a completely different pitch.

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You can see the different release points; everything about these pitches looks different. Baseball Savant has him only getting five swinging strikes this season with his slider. His whiff% is down across all his pitches, including his change-up, which was a pitch he worked on in Spring Training.

Striping is a big believer in spin rate, spin efficiency, as he discussed with David Lauria, of Fangraphs at the 2018 All-Star Game. He talks about throwing bullpens in front of TrackMan and Rapsodo cameras, so he understand pitching and ideally can use video to help him correct himself. What stood out in that interview was this:

“When I got called up in 2016, I thought that what made me good was my high arm angle leading to good downward angle on my fastball, so I should pitch down in the zone. But I tried that, and I was getting walloped.”

High arm angle, pitching down in the zone getting walloped, is he talking about 2016 or 2020?

On the left we have Striplings fastball location from April and May of 2016 prior to him being sent down, and the right is from 2020. They are pretty similar, fastballs in to righties and not many fastballs up. For comparison here are all his fastballs from July 2016 when he was recalled, through 2019.

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Stripling is still throwing strikes; his first pitch strike rate is 65.3%, per Fangraphs. His zone rate is at a career high 49.5%. He can’t get batters to expand the strike zone. Batters are chasing on 26.4% of his pitches, a career low. When batters have chased it’s because they got a pitch to hit. Contact on pitches outside the zone is up to a career high 74%, 12% higher than last season. Contact in the zone is up and his swinging strike rate is down to 6.6% after three seasons in double digits.

The reasoning most likely behind this is that Stripling’s pitches because of the new design and movement don’t mirror off each other as they once did. Clemons wrote about Stripling’s spin mirroring back in February and here is what he had to say.

“Why lean more on the curveball? I could give you the theory behind it: his curveball and fastball break in nearly opposite directions. It’s not quite true spin axis mirroring, because his curveball features a good deal of gyroscopic spin, but all else equal, you’d like to see a fastball go straight up and a curveball straight down to maximally confuse hitters. Stripling’s curve complements his fastball that way, particularly now that he throws the fastball up in the zone. Even as his repertoire has varied over the years, the movement offset has been consistent:”

Stripling has success when he paired his fastball with his curve. Clemons goes on to say how Striplings slider is a pitch he uses to get batters off of the fastball-curveball combo, and how he uses it to the outer edges of the plate.

Everything Ross Stripling did in the past to be successful has changed this season. His release point is higher, his pitches have changed shape, his location off. Nothing has gone right for Stripling. The failed trade in February, may have negatively affected him. Eno notes in his piece, Stripling models his game plan after Hyun-Jin Ryu. Perhaps having Ryu as a teammate again will help Stripling get back to form.

Stripling, like Ray, is an upside play for the Blue Jays. Stripling has been really good in the past and the Blue Jays have him under control through 2022. If he can get back to where he was prior to this season, he could be a very good number three starter behind Ryu and Nate Pearson. If not he could go back to the bullpen and fill that swingman role. This is another low risk high reward arm.

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