The Nationals have been attached to rumors for a variety of the top free agent starters this offseason, most recently with both Mike Leake and Scott Kazmir. Perhaps those rumors come from a genuine interest, but I speculate that at least a part of them stems from the star power that already exists at the top of their rotation. Last offseason, the Nationals had four excellent starters with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister, and then they added Max Scherzer on top of them. That rotation and not Bryce Harper was the reason most analysts believed the Nationals would win the NL East. If the rich could get richer last year, perhaps they could again this year.
As of now, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross are the likely in-house options to replace Zimmermann and Fister—not necessarily in that order—and I believe Ross is a viable fantasy sleeper. As a first round draft pick out of high school back in 2011 and as the brother of Tyson Ross, Joe Ross could easily have attracted a lot of attention. Instead, control-driven success in the minors held him back from the top of prospect lists. In a full season of A-ball in 2013, Ross stuck out just 5.8 batters per nine. That is not exactly the template of a future fantasy star.
Since then, Ross has increased his strikeout rates at each extended stop in the minors. He struck out 7.7 per nine in 102 innings at High-A in 2014 and then 9.5 per nine in 51 innings in Double-A in 2015. As is typical, Ross’s strikeouts declined somewhat once he reached the majors, but in 77 innings, he struck out 8.1 batters per nine. That is not exceptional, but it’s much better than average (7.4). Meanwhile, Ross’s 11.8 percent swinging strike rate (SwStr%) was even better relative to average (9.3 percent). Among starters with at least 70 innings pitched in 2015, Ross was in the top 20, tied with sleeper no more Raisel Iglesias and Danny Salazar.
|Jorge de la Rosa||11.7%|
Because swinging strike rate relies on pitches rather than batters faced, it stabilizes more quickly and suggests the inexperienced Ross could see his strikeout rate regress up as he throws more innings.
If 2015 was any indication, Ross could be a rare member of the heavy-strikeout, heavy-groundball club. Last season, he was one of only 14 starters with 70 innings pitched, a swinging strike rate of 11 percent or higher, and a groundball rate of 47 percent or higher. That list includes the top three finishers in the NL Cy Young and an average of 3.7 WAR.
|Jorge de la Rosa||149.0||11.7%||52.0%||1.7|
|Rubby de la Rosa||188.2||11.1%||49.1%||0.3|
If the Nationals allow Ross to start the season in their rotation, then he is worth considering even in shallower formats. His strikeout potential gives him greater upside than many pitchers actually being drafted like Jimmy Nelson and Jonathan Niese.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt