Tyson Ross Sings the High-Leverage Blues

There isn’t much bad to say about Tyson Ross’ 2014 season. He didn’t control the running game. Sure, but neither did Greg Maddux, and that worked out okay. He pitched better at home than on the road. Fine, but he didn’t build Petco Park. He faded toward the end. Okay, but he’d never been asked to work nearly that many innings in his life.

Ross was a stud last year, with few weaknesses, most of which are easily explained. One area where he struggled, which isn’t so easily explained, was in high-leverage situations (you might want to read this lengthy discussion on leverage before proceeding). Here, courtesy of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, are his splits for 2014:

High 132 .308 .339 .564 7
Medium 343 .205 .287 .275 3
Low 336 .226 .315 .286 3

Ross allowed more than half of his home runs in the most critical situations, despite those accounting for just 16 percent of his plate appearances. Batters went from slugging like Paul Janish in medium- and low-leverage situations to Miguel Cabrera in high-leverage situations.

That’s weird. Has Ross had this problem in the past? Since 2014 was his first full season in a big-league rotation, we don’t have a lot of data to work with, but here’s what 2013 looks like:

High 104 .264 .327 .429 3
Medium 209 .224 .311 .311 2
Low 191 .205 .277 .287 3

We see the same effect, albeit to a much smaller degree. Why? Good question, but I have no idea. Still, it’s a statistical oddity, which makes it interesting.

Context? Here’s how MLB pitchers fared in 2014:

Leverage PA BA OBP SLG
High 37754 .251 .318 .381
Medium 66986 .256 .318 .395
Low 78982 .248 .309 .382

So not everyone does their worst when it matters most. Ross’ splits are super freaky, yow. However, he is not alone.

Let’s look at the difference between opponent OPS (as always, crude but effective) in high-leverage situations and in all situations. Last year there were 88 ERA qualifiers in MLB. Some of these guys (Phil Hughes, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren) showed no difference. Others, such as Henderson Álvarez, went from decent to untouchable (batters hit .199/.252/.235 against him in high-leverage situations).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s this:

Player OPS
High-Lev Total Diff
R.A. Dickey 1016 705 311
Tyson Ross 903 634 269
Hisashi Iwakuma 848 642 206
Kyle Kendrick 961 769 192
Bartolo Colon 892 716 176

These guys, with the possible exception of Kendrick, are solid big-league pitchers. (And this is just the top five. The next five include Stephen Strasburg and Félix Hernández . Here’s the full list for those interested.) Given how few plate appearances occur in high-leverage situations, and that these pitchers perform well in other situations, their struggles in this one area aren’t a huge deal.

Looking at this stuff closely takes you to some strange places. For example, guys who have historically excelled in high-leverage situations relative to other situations include Eric Show, Oliver Pérez, and Chris Young. Guys who haven’t include Don Sutton and Steve Carlton. Best single-season differential among ERA qualifiers? Aaron Harang with the 2011 Padres (758 OPS against overall, 385 in high-leverage situations). As rabbit holes go, you could trip hard down this one.

Anyway, I’ve already taken enough of your time with an article that is headed nowhere, so I’ll close with a few questions for further study:

  • Is Ross’ performance in high-leverage situations a fluke? Can he improve? If so, how?
  • What pitchers have struggled in this area in the past? Did they improve?
  • What pitchers have excelled? Why?

Maybe there are no answers. That happens a lot in life. Then again, maybe we can learn something. That happens in life, too, although maybe not as often as we’d like.

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