This winter features a surprisingly strong class of free agent pitchers. Aces Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, and Carlos Rodón dominate the headlines, but behind them lurk a solid cadre of mid-rotation starters. Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon, and Taijuan Walker all figure to boost whichever rotation they join, but there is one under-the-radar name who could prove to be the steal of this year’s free agency.
If I asked you who was the AL East’s best starting pitcher in the final four months of the season, you might name Shane McClanahan, Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, Gerrit Cole, or Nestor Cortes. All are valid guesses. However, there is perhaps no pitcher with a more watertight case for that title than Ross Stripling.
2022 Statistics: 32 games (24 starts), 134.1 IP, 3.01 ERA (129 ERA+), 3.11 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, 7.4 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 3.1 fWAR
Previous Contract: Settled on a one-year, $3.79 million contract with the Blue Jays last winter to avoid arbitration in his third and final year of arbitration-eligibility, became a free agent following conclusion of season.
Stripling was the Dodgers’ perennial sixth starter his first four seasons in the league, providing depth behind a rotation stacked with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Hyun Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda and others. Because of their ability to both churn out new rotation arms and add via trade and free agency, the Dodgers deemed Stripling surplus to requirements and dealt him to Blue Jays at the 2020 trade deadline. In Toronto, he continued his role as the sixth starter until his stellar play and a season-ending injury to Ryu gave the Blue Jays no choice but to make him a permanent rotation member in early June.
It’s fair to say Stripling had one of the most unheralded campaigns of any pitcher in baseball. Among all starters with at least 120 innings pitched in 2022, Ross Stripling paced the field with a measly 2.9 percent walk rate. He really found his groove after joining the starting rotation full-time — from the start of June to the end of the season, Stripling placed second among starting pitchers in the division in ERA (2.64) and fWAR (2.6).
The changes he made to his pitch selection undergird the breakout he experienced this past season. He elevated the slider and changeup as his main secondary weapons, throwing each about a quarter of the time to backup his fastball. The four-seamer is nothing special — he throws it in the low-90s with poor spin — but he’s able to get a good amount of true backspin on the ball from his extreme over the top delivery to impart above-average rise relative to the league. However, it’s the way these three pitches work in concert that really took Stripling to the next level.
The 33 year old righty has an almost preternatural feel for tunneling his pitches. This speaks to a repeatability in his delivery as well as fine-tuned proprioception to sense arm position and release point.
Because Stripling releases the four-seamer, slider, and changeup out of near-identical locations, the hitter has one less key to identify the pitch out of the hand. And when he’s able to sync the aiming points of the three pitches, they travel similar paths toward the plate, diverging beyond the hitter’s recognition point and with two-plane separation in movement.
Ross Stripling four-seamer, slider, changeup overlay pic.twitter.com/jqH7wgHUf9— Peter Brody (@PBrods7) December 1, 2022
With his performance in 2022, Stripling has likely played his way into a multi-year contract. When you consider the contracts already signed by starters of similar projectability to Stripling — Tyler Anderson signed with the Angels for three years, $39 million while Zach Eflin just inked a three year, $40 million pact with the Rays — it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see Stripling match if not top those deals in AAV, though at 33 he may have a tough time extracting more years.
The Yankees’ projected starting rotation for 2023 is looking solid, though perhaps with wider error bars than the team would prefer. Uncertainty still lingers around the types of workloads that Luis Severino and Nestor Cortes can handle, and there’s no telling what version of Frankie Montas will pitch on any given day. He may not be the flashiest pitcher on the market, but Ross Stripling might be one of the best prices on the market to replace Jameson Taillon’s (as of now) vacated innings in the rotation.