These numbers seem largely meaningless, but they have a point. They are, in order, the total number of innings pitched by left-handed relievers for the 2011, 2010, and 2009 Texas Rangers. It's safe, therefore, to assume that when the Rangers break camp before their April 6 kickoff, the bullpen group is going to include a pitcher who throws with his left hand (and I'm not counting Yu Darvish and his magical left-handed bullpen sessions in this).
However, looking at the current crop of lefty relievers in camp, it's clear no one horse has presented itself as the leader in the pack. There's a good reason for that; the field is composed of a number of replacement-level veterans (Neal Cotts, Mitch Stetter, and Joe Beimel have combined for 1.9 Wins Above Replacement level, for their careers, combined- and 1.6 of that total is represented by Beimel's 2007-2008 seasons) and fairly anonymous prospects.
DOB: 06/24/1989 Age on Opening Day: 22
Spent Last Season: Between Myrtle Beach (A+) and Frisco (AA)
Season Stats: 26 starts, 161.1 IP, 2.45 ERA, 134 K, 33 BB (4.06 K:BB ratio), 6 HR allowed
Nicknames you should know: RoboRoss, Groundballs, Ole’ Ross Groundborne*
*Yes, I made this one up. But it is awesome and fun and you’re an awesome baseball nerd if you get the joke.
Who and or what is Robbie Ross?: Robbie Ross is a fastball-slider lefty who has been featured as a starter since being drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft. Standing at 5'11, 185, he is part of a line of smallish, athletic pitchers the Rangers have had a habit of targeting in the draft as well as Latin America.
Of the prospect candidates to pitch out of the bullpen in Arlington this year, Ross stands alone as the only one not on the Rangers’ 40 man roster; to bring Ross up, the Rangers would have to move someone off the 40 (via outright release, trade, or transfer to the 60-Day DL). There are very few (if any) things that trump the 40 Man Roster, so this is important to note. For most of his minor league career, Ross has profiled as a groundball-heavy inning eater, with few walks, few homers, and a modest strikeout rate.
Why Ross is ideal for the role: For his career, Ross has been a lefty-killer. When Ross has a platoon advantage on minor-league batters, he strikes out 30 percent of them while walking only 7 percent. The next lefty to take Ross deep will be the first (he should probably keep that ball. He being the batter, not Ross. If Ross kept the ball, that would be weird) in his professional career.
Whoever wins the lefty spot in the ‘pen will be deployed largely as a weapon against lefties, given Washington and Maddux’s preferences towards bullpen construction and usage. Robbie is certainly capable of neutralizing lefties, and his repertoire is fairly major league-ready right now as a reliever (and certainly as a specialist) with his fastball and slider.
Why Ross isn't ideal for the role: Over the last three seasons, it's hard to find a Rangers minor leaguer with better surface stats than Ross; he's gone 26-20, with a 2.88 ERA in 381 innings, with the aforementioned excellent strikeout to walk ratios. Ross pitched an average of six innings per start in 2011, a very solid mark for a player in his second full professional season.
From May 20 until the end of his season, Ross failed to record an out in the sixth inning exactly twice. When he's at his best, Ross's game reminds you of Scott Feldman's; batters frustrated by pounding the ball into the ground and towards infielders, and quick, efficient innings.
While his fastball and slider have been mentioned as near-ready for the major leagues now, he also throws a changeup that's a work in progress and has added a curve this spring; development of either into a workable third pitch would give Ross a definite starter's mix.
I've spoken before about how it is always in the best interest of the franchise to leave a prospect on the path that takes them to their best ultimate development, and six years of a cost controlled, league-average starter is worth far more than the same span of control for a reliever, unless the reliever can be counted among the league's elite.
However, controversy exists as to whether Ross truly has the potential to develop into a major league starter or not. There are those who look at Ross's slight build, lack of a third pitch, and lack of high-level stuff and don't see an athlete capable of pitching 200 innings a season. I asked Jason Parks, he of Baseball Prospectus
, Texas Farm Review
, and several Martin Kove fansites of note, for his take.
“Ross has a clean delivery, one that allows for repeatability and subsequent command; Ross keeps a good line to the plate and doesn't fall off in his follow-through. With a lower arm slot and a high leg kick, Ross hides the ball well which allows the 89-91 mph fastball to sneak up on hitters. The pitch features cutting action and natural weight, making it very difficult to square up and lift.
His slider is an above-average pitch, thrown cleanly from the arm with good tilt and mid-80s velocity. Ross is a strike-thrower with two above-average offerings and a very aggressive personality on the mound. Off-the-field, Ross is borderline sweet, with golly gee sort of affect; on-the-field, he's a bulldog that will attack hitters with his fastball and shatter bats by pitching inside. He's ballsy.”
Of particular note is that Ross's delivery is clean and not particularly high-effort; this lends itself to a starter's profile, as his delivery can be repeated without expending too much energy or exposing the pitcher to a higher than average risk of injury. The commentaries on his fastball and his slider both coincide with the stats; it's difficult to go deep off Ross, and even getting the barrel on the ball for a liner isn't easy, despite less than ideal velocity.
The note about his disposition on the mound has to be welcome after seeing Derek Holland and Matt Harrison struggle with the fear of pitching anywhere but the fringes of the strike zone -- then watching both turn into above-average starters in 2011 largely based off of simply throwing strikes. Ross may be small, but he's no nibbler.
So, what can Ross project to be?: The controversy over Ross's ceiling as a prospect is a bit odd, as prognosticators see a range that isn't necessarily wide, but each camp seems adamant about their stance. Those who see Ross as a starter look at his durability, efficiency, and to-date results and see a LAIE (League Average Innings Eater) who can pitch a respectable, dependable, if unimpressive 200 innings for a major league team.
Even to a team with as strong a rotation as the Rangers project to have, a player with capability of producing that, who can travel between the majors and minors on options, has a ton of value. If you want an analog to look at, I'd check out Randy Wolf's mid-career numbers for peak projections for Ross as a starter; a string of 200 inning, mid-4 ERA seasons marked by decent/average strikeout numbers, good walk rates, and low home run totals.
More likely for Ross is bullpen work as a left-on-left specialist or long relief. As a long reliever, Tommy Hunter is a good comparison, especially for the situation here in Arlington; Ross the long reliever would ride between Round Rock and Arlington until options are exhausted, where he would probably be moved to a less competitive team that could give him a spot in the rotation to work out his arbitration years in. His disposition on the mound, and the rate at which batters produce groundballs off of him, could lead him to being a good late relief option, even though he can't approach the typical late relief velocity.
As a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY), projecting Ross gets very, very interesting. His resume as a lefty-killer is excellent, if limited; AA lefties got on-base at a .217 clip against Ross while striking out in 28 percent of plate appearances. As Jamey Newberg recently noted, Ross held lefties to a .167 batting average last season, right in line with the .160 average lefties hit against him for his career up until 2011. That's about equal to what Mark Rzepczynski has done against lefties for his career, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a reliever better at getting lefties out.
That, and Ross's name is much easier to pronounce, so it's less likely he'd get stuck in the mound late in a World Series game against Mike Napoli. Never forget.
Special thanks to Jason Parks for scouting input. Parks can be found on twitter at @professorparks, on the Baseball Prospectus podcast with Kevin Goldstein, and especially at his personal Rangers scouting site Texas Farm Review, which you should go be joining now. All links contain the risk of NSFWness for language, opinions, and #want.
Does Joseph Ursery overrate Robbie Ross because Ross is of below average height, an affliction Ursery has suffered unduly from? Maybe. Maybe not. Follow @thejoeursery on Twitter to get the real height-related scoop.