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Ross Stripling is moving away from his slider to great success

Stripling began the year in the bullpen. Not only has he established himself as one of the Dodgers’ best starters, but he’s one of the best starters in the league.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Following the initial All-Star roster announcement, fans and players alike were up in arms about Blake Snell not making the team. Looking at his pitching line, it’s hard to fathom Snell isn’t heading to Washington. This is what Snell has done in 2018.

Blake Snell 2018

IP K% BB% HR/FB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR
IP K% BB% HR/FB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR
116 28.8 9.6 11.5 2.09 3.36 2.64 2.3

Aside from the walks, that’s a very impressive line. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the American League. No wonder people are mad he isn’t yet an All-Star. An argument could be made that he should be starting the game.

But there was an even more egregious snub from the Midsummer Classic, and this is because he was snubbed from the snubs. Ross Stripling has been every bit as good as Snell, but I haven’t seen anyone but Dodger fans complain about him being overlooked.

This is what Stripling has done in 2018.

Ross Stripling 2018

IP K% BB% HR/FB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR
IP K% BB% HR/FB% ERA FIP DRA fWAR
89.1 28.7 3.6 12.7 2.22 2.75 2.22 2.4

Stripling started out the year in the bullpen, but don’t be skeptical of the ERA and strikeout rates because of that. He’s thrown 70 of his 89.1 innings as a starter, and if anything, he’s been even better. Since becoming a full-time starter, Stripling has stuck out 10.8 batters per nine innings and thrown to a 2.19 ERA.

Stripling has basically been Snell except he doesn’t walk anybody. Stripling’s BB/9 of 1.31 is third in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings. He trails only Corey Kluber and… Robbie Erlin of the Padres.

Stripling has always had above average control, but he’s never been this good at the major league level. The drop in walks is remarkable enough, but it’s also coupled with a sharp rise in strikeouts. He’s striking out nearly two more batters per nine than in his previous two years.

DRA and FIP both agree that he’s been great, and his BABIP against of .315 indicates he’s been unlucky with balls in play if anything. Clearly, he’s doing something different.

The trend these days is for pitchers to move away from the fastball. Fastball percentages across MLB have steadily declined. Pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Lance McCullers have succeeded by moving away from the fastball and relying more on their plus-secondary pitches. Stripling, on the other hand, is throwing his curve and his changeup more often, but it’s not coming at the expense of his fastball. He’s throwing his fastball more as the season wears on, but he’s using his slider less and less.

Brooks Baseball

In 2017, the slider was Stripling’s go-to secondary pitch. At times, he was more likely to throw it than the fastball. When the batter is ahead, he’s used his slider against lefties 39% of the time and 47% of the time against righties. He leans on it when his back is against the wall. But this year, he’s becoming more reliant on the fastball and curveball.

What’s interesting is that as he becomes more confident in his fastball, the velocity is slowly declining. In March and April, he threw his fastball for an average of 92-93 MPH, and now he’s down to 91. This is most likely a result of transitioning from the bullpen, where he could throw max effort more frequently, to the rotation where he needs to consider stamina. As he’s taken a little bit off the fastball, though, it’s become a better pitch for him.

One difference in Stripling’s usage of the fastball is that he’s pitching to all areas of the zone with it now. In 2016 and 2017, Stripling mostly kept his fastball above the belt and in the upper two-thirds of the strike zone.

Brooks Baseball

In 2018, he’s utilizing the bottom third of the strike zone.

Brooks Baseball

It’s not a huge shift, but his fastball locations are more evenly distributed this year. Perhaps this is why batters are swinging at Stripling’s curveballs below the zone 10-15% more frequently in 2018. They’re also swinging and missing at the curve more frequently as well. Before, hitters could be relatively assured that if Stripling threw them a pitch up, it was going to be a fastball and if it was down, it was going to be a breaking ball.

This is no longer the case as Stripling can throw his fastball to all parts of the zone now. Being able to mix his locations has made his curveball that much more effective. Opponents are slugging just .247 against his curve in 2018 compared to .385 in 2017. Even .385 is better than opponents have historically hit his slider. Opponents have slugged .409 against his slider over his career, so his recent decision to move away from it may simply be him realizing he has more effective pitches.

Whatever it is, Stripling is becoming a more complete pitcher. He’s utilizing all of the strike zone and he’s varying his pitch sequencing more than ever before. No one predicted him to be this good at the beginning of the season though the secret to his success may be his unpredictability.