Why overlooked Stripling raises floor for Blue Jays' 2022 rotation

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ross Stripling throws to a Los Angeles Angels batter during the first inning in the second baseball game of a doubleheader. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Looking at the Toronto Blue Jays roster heading into the 2022 season, there is a strong consensus about the team’s needs whenever the off-season resumes.

The conventional wisdom is that the team needs a starting-calibre infielder, another starter, and then the type of bench and bullpen depth that’s always worth stocking up on. That all checks out at first glance, but the one that stands out as worthy of questioning is the idea that the club needs another starter.

Starting depth is essential for any contender, and some of the Blue Jays depth arms (guys like Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, and potentially Nate Pearson) are on the volatile side, so bringing in some outside help is far from foolish. The team also appeared to be interested in both Steven Matz and top-of-the-rotation arms earlier in the offseason so they could easily add another starter to pair with Kevin Gausman.

All of that out of the way, the idea that Toronto needs another veteran starter might be both an overestimation of what fifth starters generally produce and an underestimation of the man currently pencilled in for the role — Ross Stripling.

To answer the question “is Stripling a suitable fifth starter” you need to answer two questions:

1. What is it reasonable to expect from a fifth starter?

2. What is it reasonable to expect from Ross Stripling?

Let’s start with question one.

Using 2021’s ZiPS projections I identified the fifth starter on each MLB team heading into the season. Usually I used the starter projected for the fifth-highest WAR, but there were occasions where overqualified pitchers were entering the season with an injury, or the worst projection went to an established player who would not be considered a“fifth starter” by any stretch of the imagination where some judgment was required.

That list of 30 players produced a 4.38 ERA and 4.58 FIP, which was respectable, but a touch misleading. For one, much of this cohort’s best work was done out of the bullpen (it’s ERA and FIP as starters was 4.55 and 4.74, respectively). Another issue is that the average rate stats were skewed towards pitchers who threw more innings — and those who piled up more innings were usually the more effective ones. It’s telling that the group averaged just 72 innings apiece and the percentage that hit basic milestones was relatively low.

The minority of guys who began the season in fifth-starter roles were healthy or effective enough to keep their roles for the duration of the season. The best of the group was probably Nick Pivetta, but his 4.53 ERA, 4.28 FIP and 2.1 WAR year was more workmanlike than extraordinary.

If the answer to question one is that fifth starters are not disastrously ineffective but far from reliable — and almost never above-average — that isn’t too high a bar for Stripling to clear. But is it fair to expect he’ll clear it? Here’s what the projections have to say about the 32-year-old’s prospects in 2022:

These projections are complicated slightly by the fact they combine starting and relief work, but Stripling has actually been more effective out of the rotation than the bullpen in the last two seasons and he doesn’t have stuff that plays up significantly in relief.

If we compared what we see here to what 2021 fifth starters managed, it’s clear Stripling at least fits in:

Based on this comparison, Stripling seems likely to be a middle-of-the-road fifth starter who’s slightly less efficient than his peers on a per-inning basis, but a better bet to soak up a credible number of innings — not a bad fit for a team with a potent offence.

Stripling doesn’t miss too many bats, he doesn’t have flashy stuff, and he’s reached a point in his career where he doesn’t have too much upside. Even so, he’s still a guy who put together a 13-start run with a 3.29 ERA last season after making a mechanical adjustment. He’s a capable floor raiser whose reputation took a massive hit from an ugly stretch that spanned the 2020 season and the beginning of 2021. That seems like a long time, but it was really just 74.1 innings, much of which took place during a bizarre outlier season. While Stripling is unlikely to make another all-star team, the perception of him seems a touch out of line with reality.

None of this means that the Blue Jays shouldn’t hope that Pearson can win a job in spring training, or stop exploring external upgrades. Pitching injuries are inevitable and the four above-average starters they have now is only an injury away from looking far less impressive. It’s just worth taking a moment to acknowledge that the expectation of having a league-average fifth starter — like Matz was at the end of 2021 — isn’t a fair one. Stripling’s resume matches the job he’s currently in, and putting a significant amount of resources towards an upgrade could close the door to opportunities that might do more to help the 2022 Blue Jays win.

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