The Emergence of Tyson Ross

This is me writing a positive post about the San Diego Padres in 2014. That’s notable, because there haven’t been too many good things to say about the Padres this year. Sorry, Padres.

To be fair, it’s mostly because of their lineup, which had a wRC+ of 40 in the month of June. The offensive unit, as a whole, has produced exactly the same WAR for the entire season as Yangervis Solarte, who was just optioned to Triple-A. Some guy named Kevin Kiermaier has nearly twice the WAR of the entire Padres lineup. But that’s for a different post. The position players have been historically bad in San Diego, but the pitching hasn’t been much better.

The Padres pitching staff is 21st in WAR. After a breakout season last year, Eric Stults has a matching ERA and FIP of 5.00. Free agent addition Josh Johnson got hurt and never pitched a game. 16 starts have been given to a lousy combination of Donn Roach, Billy Buckner, Robbie Erlin, Tim Stauffer and Odrisamer Despaigne. Ian Kennedy has been good, but not great. Andrew Cashner has been good, but he’s also been hurt.

Then there’s Tyson Ross.

A few things about Ross: He’s 6-foot-6, which is unusually tall for a baseball player. It’s totally super unusually tall for a baseball pitcher. Because of his height, Ross has some funky mechanics. I mean some really funky mechanics:

mechanics

(GIF courtesy of Kyle Boddy)

He used to be a reliever and now he’s a starter. He used to be bad and now he’s good. I’ll attempt to demonstrate how and why.

The first thing that happened was Tyson Ross was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the San Diego Padres for basically nothing in 2012. It was in San Diego that he met pitching coach Darren Balsley. I’ll let Tyson tell you about that:

“I had a rough year in 2012 and was kind of searching for things,” Ross said. “But coming here, from Day One in camp, he [Balsley] had a way of getting the best out of you and could convey how to do that. He will tell you one adjustment and the next pitch you’ll see it or feel it. He could see something in the dugout, and before you even talk to him about it, he’ll have a solution brewing in his head.

“I’ve said it before, but that trade was the best thing to ever happen to me.”

I can’t tell you exactly what changes Balsley instilled in Ross, because I don’t have access to the Padres clubhouse and Googling the tubes of the internet yielded me nothing substantial. But I can tell you that several Padres pitchers gush over Balsley in the article linked above. I can also tell you that Tyson Ross, as far as results go, has done a complete 180 since coming to San Diego, turning into something that closely resembles an ace. And this has been going on for nearly a full calendar year now:

ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% HR/9 GB% SwStrk%
Oakland ’10-12
5.33 4.26 4.42 15.6% 10.7% 0.73 50.0% 7.5%
San Diego ’13-14
3.05 3.28 3.30 23.3% 8.7% 0.63 56.8% 11.7%

These aren’t totally perfect comparisons, as Ross bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation before settling in as a starter in late July last year. And we know that pitchers pitch differently in different roles. But to put things into context, let’s isolate just Ross’ innings as a starter since the beginning of last season.

Of all starting pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings since the start of last season, Ross’ 2.99 ERA ranks 15th, ahead of Jordan Zimmermann. His 3.17 FIP ranks 20th, better than Cole Hamels. His 57% ground ball rate is fourth-best in the MLB and higher than Tim Hudson‘s. And his second-best 12% swinging strike rate puts him right above Yu Darvish. To put it simply, Ross is both filthy and effective.

And it’s mostly because of a slider.

I said earlier that I didn’t know specifically what changes Balsley may have instilled in Ross. But one of them could be a concentrated effort to use the slider, his best weapon, more often. In Oakland, Ross threw his slider 24% of the time. In San Diego, Ross is throwing his slider 35% of the time. With two strikes, that ramps up to over half the time. Tyson Ross has thrown more sliders than any pitcher in baseball this year. And it’s no big secret where he’s going to throw it:

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 12.48.16 AM

An astounding 47% of Ross’ 700+ sliders this season have landed in that one quadrant. Low and away to righties, low and inside to lefties. Neither side is having much success. Ross’ slider has graded out more than nine runs above average, according to our PITCHf/x leaderboards, making it the fifth-most valuable slider in baseball and one of the 15 best pitches in the entire game. Opposing batters are hitting just .209 against Ross’ slider this year. A quarter of the time they swing at it, they miss.

For your pleasure, here’s a super slow motion clip of Ross’ slider making Buster Posey do something that you don’t see Buster Posey do too often:

slide1

Here it is making Cody Ross do something he hopes he never does again:

slide3

Here it is another time to strike out Cody Ross, in the same game, for good measure:

slide2

Tyson Ross has a good slider. A great slider. But Tyson Ross has always had a great slider. It’s just that he started throwing it more once he got to San Diego. This year, not much as changed with Ross concerning his slider and its usage. But there’s a different part of Ross’ repertoire which has changed.

Last year, Ross threw a four-seam fastball over half the time. Batters hit .310 off of it with a .505 slugging percentage. To put that into context, Yasiel Puig currently has a .308 batting average and a .516 slugging percentage. So basically, every hitter was Yasiel Puig against Ross’ four-seam fastball. Now, Ross has mostly ditched the fastball, more than halving its usage and instead replacing it with a sinker, which he is now throwing a third of the time. It’s especially being used against left-handed batters, when he ramps its usage up to 43%.

The results? Ross is actually running a reverse platoon split now, which is the complete opposite of what we’ve come to expect from a pitcher who throws as many sliders as Ross does. Sliders are supposed to be effective towards same-handed batters but vulnerable to opposite-handed batters. Yet Ross is running a .266 wOBA to lefties and a .309 to righties. Part of that is because his slider is so good that it doesn’t matter who he’s throwing it to. But the sinker is helping too. He’s getting more ground balls. He has induced more double plays than any pitcher in the National League. He’s giving up less homers. And now, when he does throw the four-seamer, guys have the same average and slugging percentage as Yunel Escobar, rather than Yasiel Puig.

A couple years ago, the Athletics totally gave up on Tyson Ross and traded him to the Padres for a couple of non-prospects. While I was writing this post, Tyson Ross became an All-Star. Part of that is because the Padres have been bad, but mostly it’s because Tyson Ross is really good. When he came to San Diego two years ago, he started throwing his slider a lot more and it turned into one of the deadliest weapons in the MLB. This year, Ross stopped throwing as much of the pitch that hurt him the most in his fastball and instead started throwing a good sinker while killing a platoon split in the process. His mechanics and heavy reliance on the slider probably make him an injury risk, but as long as he can stay healthy enough to put on those awful camouflage uniforms every fifth day, the Padres appear to have found something special in Tyson Ross.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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