With the MLB Winter Meetings underway, the Detroit Tigers are unlikely to make any significant signings. Instead, the strategy will be to again sign low-risk, high-reward players who are not too flashy but could be in for a solid 2019 season if everything goes right. Righthander Tyson Ross, who is headed to Detroit on a one-year contract worth $5.75 million, fits this mold perfectly.
Ross is 31 years old and just a couple years removed from thoracic outlet surgery, which he had in October 2016. For those two reasons alone, expectations for his performance in 2019 should be severely limited. His 2018 season was worth just 1.0 fWAR, and Steamer projects him to be worth just 0.3 fWAR next year. If he does not overachieve, the reported $5.75 million (plus incentives) he will receive seems like a bit of an overpay by the Tigers front office.
However, though Ross might not look like much right now, he does offer something that few free agent pitchers in his price range do. It may feel like ages ago, but pre-thoracic outlet surgery Ross was nothing to scoff at. In fact, the 9.6 fWAR he produced from 2013 to 2015 ranked in the top 25 among all MLB starting pitchers, and the former second-rounder has the history of being something special.
Setting aside the obvious caveats about health and durability, Ross was clearly a top pitcher not too long ago. In over 80 starts from 2013 to 2015, the righthander averaged over six innings per start with a very solid 3.07 ERA and 3.13 FIP. He managed over a strikeout per inning as well, and peaked with 4.3 fWAR during the 2015 season.
Ross used his fastball heavily in 2013, but began to rely more on his slider in the coming seasons, when he produced 3.2 fWAR and 4.3 fWAR in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Last season, he threw the two pitches at a very similar rate, while also introducing a cutter, a change from early on in his career. The cutter averaged nearly 92 miles per hour last year, and induced ground balls at a 51.7 percent clip.
Unfortunately, the change in pitch mix has not been enough to solve velocity problems. Since 2013, Ross’ fastball has been on a steep decline, bottoming out at a career low last season — even as he worked out of the bullpen for part of the year.
The numbers are not pretty. Ross featured a 72.3 percent contact rate and a 27.0 percent hard-hit rate in his quality three-year stretch. Since the start of 2017, those numbers have worsened to 81.2 percent and 36.4 percent, respectively. Additionally his walk rate has climbed a couple percentage points up to 11.4 percent in recent years.
The overall picture is not great, but the big idea is that Ross was a really good pitcher at one point, and there is always hope that he can move back toward this level. The Tigers are not expecting him to pitch completely like his pre-injury self, but odds are he is better than the last two seasons have shown.
Ross was surprisingly solid down the stretch last season, earning a 3.70 ERA across 41 1⁄3 innings in the second half. Many of these appearances came in relief (hence the lower inning count) but he was decently effective in this role. While Ross may not be a superb innings eater, he should not be a detriment while on the mound.
The second half of 2018 also saw Ross limit home run damage, which is something he was better at during his peak. His fly ball rate dropped from 30.9 percent over the past two-plus years to 22.9 percent down the stretch, and his home run-to-fly ball ratio (HR/FB%) fell from 14.5 percent to 9.1 percent.
Ross’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) also fell from .293 to .259 during the second half; while this could indicate some good fortune, it also points to his focus on generating ground balls with his new cutter. The Tigers are likely to fill the infield with glove-first options, which would be beneficial for a pitcher who saw a ground ball rate above 50 percent during the second half last season.
And while statistical projections don’t think much of Ross, his bar for success is fairly low. If the Tigers guessed wrong in signing him, then they will be out $6 million and a roster spot. But if Ross proves to be even just slightly above average, the team made a great decision and should be able to receive some reasonable compensation if they choose to deal him to a contender in July. Ross may not be the most exciting name on the market, but he is exactly the type of player Detroit should be targeting this offseason.