Pitching for Next Year: Tyson Ross

Before the season, I meant to write about three Padres pitchers that intrigued me in a way that virtually every other guy on the staff did not: Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Anthony Bass. Each had shown bursts of promise, had been touted in the past, and was entering his physical prime.

They might be nothing, but unlike with Jason Marquis, Clayton Richard, and Eric Stults, at least there was a chance. That was the theory, anyway.

With the schedule nearly 80 percent complete, now might be a good time to actually write something. We’ll start with Ross. First, here’s an oversimplified look at his performance through August 21, 2013:

IP ERA+ WAR K%* OPS**
85.1 122 1.2 22.0 612

*K% is K/PA. Not all innings are created equal, so this is a little more precise than K/9. League average is 19.6. Higher is better.

**OPS is OBP+SLG compiled by batters against the pitcher. League average is 707. Lower is better.

Short version: When healthy, the 26-year-old right-hander has been very good. The usual small-sample caveats apply.

Moving South, Finding a Role

Ross, a 2008 second-round pick, went 2-11 with a 6.50 ERA for Oakland last year. Those numbers will get you traded for Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner, as Ross was in November 2012.

In Baseball Prospectus 2013, I mentioned that nobody was sure what to expect from Ross:

He throws hard and draws praise for his makeup, but has what BP’s pitching mechanics expert Doug Thorburn refers to ($) as “zero momentum and a short stride,” which hurts his perceived velocity and late movement on breaking pitches… Ross could spend time in the bullpen as well as the rotation. The jury is still out on whether he’s best suited to the former, the latter, or neither.

Padres manager Bud Black sees Ross as a starting pitcher, which he was for the season’s first three weeks before landing on the disabled list with a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury. On returning in mid-May, Ross moved to the bullpen, where he was fairly effective (31 IP, 3.48 ERA, 706 OPS) in low-leverage situations.

When Clayton Richard’s season ended, the Padres–as they had with Cashner a year earlier–sent Ross to Triple-A Tucson to stretch out his arm for a return to the rotation. After the All-Star break, Ross posted a 1.32 ERA and 417 OPS against in his first five starts against some good teams (Diamondbacks, Yankees, Reds) and not-so-good ones (Brewers, Mets).

Those are pretty numbers, but anything can happen in five starts. And sure enough–as Avenging Jack Murphy has documented–he got shelled in his sixth start, at home against the Pirates.

Still, five out of six ain’t bad. If he keeps doing that, he’ll be fine.

Tweaking Mechanics

Shortly after Ross was traded, Thorburn identified Ross ($) as a pitcher with 20 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) momentum. I recently asked if Ross had made any changes, and Thorburn said that he “still has very low momentum and an extremely short stride, especially for a pitcher of his size” but that “he does seem to be repeating his timing better.”

A recent Jonah Keri article quotes Ross as crediting Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley for the improved timing:

Early in spring training, Darren had me make a small adjustment to my warm-up routine that got me to get the timing down. I’m a tall, lanky guy, so he had me do this simple step-through drill. The idea was to sync up my foot strike to get my arm up in time. Everything flows from there. It was a very minor adjustment, but it’s what I needed to get on track.

Even back in February, Ross complimented Balsley, saying that “he’s a really good communicator and so far we’re connecting.” Ross also noted that he was “real adamant about not changing my motion.” They refined, they did not overhaul.

Black is another who likes Ross’ delivery. At the end of July, he praised the 6’6” right-hander for some of the same tendencies that Thorburn mentioned as negatives: “Tyson has that short stride, little funky in the back the way the ball comes out of his glove.”

Simplifying Repertoire

When Ross came to San Diego, he brought with him shaky command. The mechanical tweaks were implemented to help fix that, but that’s not all they did.

Balsley also worked with Ross to simplify his repertoire. Instead of three fastballs, Ross now uses two. The changeup is slower. Balsley left the slider alone because, as he said, “there’s nothing wrong with his slider. It’s a very, very good Major League pitch.”

How good? According to FanGraphs, it has accounted for 75 percent of Ross’ strikeouts in 2013.

More generally, Brooks Baseball shows that his hard stuff is a little harder this year, while his soft stuff is a little softer:

Year FB SI CH SL
2012 93.6 92.6 88.0 86.7
2013 94.8 94.2 87.5 86.3

He also appears to be getting more downward movement from his changeup, although he is throwing it less often (6.3% this year vs 9.5% last year). The slider, meanwhile, has less downward movement than it did in 2012 and is generating more swings-and-misses.

When I checked with Thorburn, he mentioned that “Ross is throwing harder than at any other point of his career” and that “the slider has been virtually unhittable this season,” citing the latter pitch as a key to his improved success against lefties.

In the Keri article, Ross also noted his struggles against left-handers last year and the importance of throwing his fastball inside for strikes so he can get them to chase his slider outside later in the count. The data at Brooks Baseball supports this. Ross has thrown more sliders this year to lefties than last and to greater effect.

Sliders to LHB 2012 2013
Total 123 201
Usage % 15.7 25.0
Swing % 48.8 58.7
Whiff % 16.3 23.4
LD % 20.0 9.4

Lefties are swinging more often at Ross’ slider than they did in 2012. They are missing the pitch more often and not hitting it as hard when they do make contact. The end result is a smaller platoon split:

Year vs RHB vs LHB
OPS K/BB OPS K/BB
2012 759 2.0 974 0.9
2013 561 3.0 665 1.7

His newfound ability to retire batters on either side of the plate makes Ross a viable rotation option, rather than someone who must be limited to spots against specific types of hitters. Can he sustain his success against lefties over long periods of time? We don’t know yet, but the early returns under Balsley are encouraging.

Ross still needs to improve the changeup. Based on the progress he’s made this season, it could happen. He has the tools and he has the desire. As Balsley observed in spring training, “I get a feeling he wants to be dominant. He does know he’s very talented, and I don’t think he wants to be a guy who just is a swing man on the staff.”

Dominant? Sounds like a great plan. Now he just has to do it.

* * *

Do you like what you’ve seen of Ross this year? Do you think his improvement is real or a mirage? Leave a comment, send an email (geoff@sonofaduck.com), or hit me up on Twitter (@ducksnorts).

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  • Geoff Hancock

    Love Ross and love the idea of having him go out there every 5th day. Between him, Kennedy and Cashner, the makings of an actual rotation appear to be in place.

  • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

    As I looked through Brooks Baseball yesterday morning I loved seeing the mph difference between his FB and CH. If he could get to the point where he throws it more frequently with command he could really devastate batters.

    What does Thorburn think about the potential for injury due to his short stride and lack of momentum, Geoff? Does his height add considerable deception by using the short stride? Or is that info in those links? Too late – I already typed these questions.

    • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

      Great stuff by the way.

    • http://padrespublic.com/ AvengingJackMurphy

      Clicked links. Didn’t get answer to first question (although it’s mentioned that past injuries could be do to stride and timing) got an answer to question 2 (no deception because of low arm slot).

      • Geoff Young

        Doug didn’t mention potential for injury in our correspondence either, although I didn’t think to ask about that.

  • VM David

    I like the progress on his changeup, but it could improve/be more consistent. Anecdotally, his better outings seem to coincide with his changeup having better movement.