If baseball was fair to Ross Stripling, he probably would not be on this list right now. After a stellar 2013 season left him on the doorstep of the big league rotation, Stripling was knocked back by Tommy John surgery, wiping out his entire 2014 season and likely leaving him a month or two behind the curve for the 2015 season.
Despite the surgery, Stripling remains an appealing prospect for the Dodgers, possibly as a starter, but perhaps more so now as a reliever that could still reach the big leagues this season. With four pitches already flashing quality and the chance for one or more to play up even further in the bullpen, Stripling has the highest relief ceiling of the players covered on this list so far, with the upside of a dominant 8th inning reliever who might just be ready for that spotlight when healthy.
I can’t help but think Tyler Clippard when I watch Stripling pitch. Like Clippard, Stripling comes from an over-the-top angle that you just don’t see as much anymore. In doing so, Stripling gives hitters a different angle and plane on his pitches they aren’t normally accustomed to seeing from other arms, and this especially makes breaking balls hard to pick up out of hand. Also like Clippard, Stripling doesn’t have to pitch with a high velocity fastball to get hitters out, largely because the pitch is hard to pick up and occasionally tough to distinguish between the fastball and the breaking ball out of hand.
Stripling commands his fastball capably to both sides of the plate, and shows solid overall command, a quality that helps him work deeper into games as a starter.
Instead of a change-up like Clippard, Stripling’s best out pitch is a hard slider that almost appears to break straight down at times that he’s able to throw in the zone for called strikes. He also shows an above-average curve with bigger break but doesn’t pop out of hand because he throws from such a high angles.
Stripling’s change up is solid and has decent movement, but it’s easier to see out of hand because he pronates his wrist in a somewhat exaggerated release.
While Stripling can stay on the path of starting and likely become a capable number four starter, I see more potential from him in relief. As a starter, Stripling has the necessary athleticism and consistency in his delivery to suggest he’s pitch efficient, and this is also reflected in his stats.
He doesn’t have elite arm speed to suggest much more velocity if he chose to redline his effort in relief, but I feel like each pitch is just a tick or two away from making a higher grade, and the slider especially could be plus to plus-plus if thrown at max effort out of the pen. There isn’t much Stripling needed to improve upon to reach the major leagues prior to injury, rather it was more so a question of the team finding where he best fits in the pitching staff.
Stripling shows the mentality to pitch in pressure situations: he threw a no-hitter on his college graduation day, and Stripling bet on himself to improve his draft stock by returning for his senior season and succeeded. He comes across as both intelligent and pragmatic about his situation and gives no red flags from a personality standpoint. Stripling has been both highly successful and has overachieved his tools to consistently produce at a high level.
While there’s no publicly available time table for Stripling’s return, a typical recovery period would suggest Stripling should be ready for minor league action at some point in the first half of the minor league season.
"We have a year or even more to get healthy, so if something doesn’t feel right, there’s really no need to push through it," Stripling last week told Jon Weisman of Dodger Insider. "Especially since I’m a starter, I have to be able to pitch six or seven innings, not just one. Your main focus is just to get healthy."
I’m not overly concerned about his arm action being an ongoing injury concern, and would instead point to the growing list of Texas A&M products who have had significant arm injury/fatigue concerns coming out of that program, with John Stilson, Barret Loux, Michael Wacha highlighting the list.
I’m not versed enough on the Dodgers’ recovery program to suggest just at what level we can expect Stripling to pitch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Stripling found his rhythm by midseason and again started knocking on the big league door. Best case scenario may be a late-season call-up and a chance to make an impact out of the pen down the stretch, but ultimately, 2016 may be the year he finds his footing in the big leagues. Whether that is as a starter at the back of the rotation, or as a late inning option out of the pen is for the team to decide, but Stripling’s character and success to date suggests he’ll be ready for either opportunity.