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Tigers vs. Red Sox Preview: We’re still not sure what to make of Tyson Ross

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Ross has produced a solid ERA so far, but advanced metrics suggest this might be fool’s gold.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, when writing these previews, it seems that I always find one Tigers starter that never quite passes the sniff test. Game previews turn into essays on said player, or a test kitchen of sorts where theories are thrown out on why that player is performing the way they are. I’m sure Anibal Sanchez was that player one year. Mike Pelfrey might have been involved along the way. Rick Porcello certainly made us think at times.

This year, that player is undoubtedly Tyson Ross. We already started this exercise a couple of weeks ago, all but admitting defeat after just two starts from the veteran righthander. Doubling the sample has taught us a bit more — Ross doesn’t seem to be the strikeout artist he was against the Kansas City Royals back on April 7 — but inconsistency from outing to outing still leaves us wondering a bit on where Ross’ numbers will end up at season’s end.

Well, the traditional numbers, at least. Ross’ ERA could end up anywhere from the mid-3s to the mid-5s, but his advanced metrics are all but certain to be a disaster. His 4.98 FIP is already way higher than anything else, and his propensity for bouts of wildness and giving up home runs won’t solve that issue anytime soon. The walks seem to come in bunches as well, which might not mix well with a Boston offense that, for all of their struggles on Tuesday, has too much talent to be held down for long.

And while Ross has given up some homers here and there, he has otherwise looked tough to square up; opponents have just 21 hits off him in 24 innings, and his 24.3 percent soft contact rate currently ranks eighth in the majors among qualified starters.

Will that stick around? We’ll see. But if Ross can put together another solid outing, the Tigers might be able to clinch a series win.

Detroit Tigers (12-10) at Boston Red Sox (9-15)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation site: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Tyson Ross (1-2, 3.38 ERA) vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (1-2, 7.20 ERA)

Game 23 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Ross 24.0 17.0 9.0 4.98 0.1
Rodriguez 20.0 22.3 7.5 4.80 0.1

Like most of Boston’s rotation (and roster, really), Eduardo Rodriguez has not gotten off to a very good start this year. He has a 7.20 ERA through his first four outings, with just one quality start to his name. He also doesn’t have the built-in excuse that guys like Chris Sale and Rick Porcello — both of whom didn’t make their spring training debuts until mid-March — carried with them into the regular season. Rodriguez started on time, threw 105 pitches in his first start of the year, and just plain hasn’t been very good so far.

There are a few “buts” to be found here, though. For one, Rodriguez has looked better in his last two starts, with five earned runs allowed in 12 innings. He also has 14 strikeouts to just one walk during that stretch, giving him a 3.75 ERA and 3.43 FIP in those two outings. His batted ball profile through 20 innings isn’t bad either, with a soft contact rate not far off from what Ross has produced in his first four starts of 2019.

There’s also this.

Rodriguez’s best offering a fantastic changeup that induces batters to chase the slow ball out of the zone over 45% of the time ... However, Rodriguez elects to feature his changeup off the plate dramatically often (just 23% zone rate last year!), which means he needs a solid third option to earn strikes. Is that his slider/cutter? During his most successful starts, we see the bender stealing strikes often, though it’s far from a strong offering on its own. If Rodriguez is to take that leap across 30+ starts, he will need this pitch to comfortably find the zone and allow his changeup to become the deadly weapon in his back pocket. Watch out for Rodriguez’s cutter early in 2019 as it could dictate the entire year’s performance.

So far, Rodriguez is throwing that cutter more often than his changeup, and it has arguably been his best pitch. He is using it almost exclusively as an out pitch against lefties — of which he’s not likely to see many today — while still throwing the changeup when he gets ahead of righties. The change hasn’t been great so far, with opponents hitting .318 against it, but his last couple outings suggest he is rounding into form; the results will likely follow soon.

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. Rodriguez’s strikeout touch

For all of the good they did at the plate on Tuesday, the Tigers continued to struggle making contact. They combined for 23 strikeouts in the two games, and continue to hover near the top of MLB’s strikeout rate leaderboards. They have the American League’s worst swinging strike rate, and the highest swing rate of any team in baseball. That might not mix well with the mercurial Rodriguez, who, for all of his other faults this year, is still striking out over a batter per inning. Rodriguez has found his strikeout touch of late as well, with 14 punchouts to just one walk in his last two starts.

Prediction

The offense disappears and the Red Sox end Detroit’s three-game win streak.