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Tyson Ross: The New Andrew Cashner

Yesterday I reminded you all about my preseason lovefest for Andrew Cashner. What I neglected to mention because it wasn’t all that important, is that Cashner opened the year in the bullpen for the first couple of weeks of the season. Who took the rotation spot I expected Cashner to fill? Tyson Ross. Meet your early Pod’s Favorite Sleeper Pitcher.

Prior to 2013, Ross possessed an average fastball in terms of velocity, didn’t induce a whole lot of swinging strikes, had iffy control, and shuttled between the Athletics rotation and the bullpen. Or in other words, he was a non-factor in fantasy leagues and someone I wondered why the heck the Padres chose for the starting staff instead of Cashner. His one redeeming quality heading into the season was his strong ground ball rate.

Then something happened this year:

Tyson Ross velocity

His fastball velocity jumped and it kept jumping. In fact, he averaged 94.9 mph during his last start of the season, his highest velocity as a starter this year and fourth highest velocity outing when you include relief appearances. While a search didn’t uncover anything real noteworthy that would explain what fueled the velocity spike, the Padres did tweak his mechanics┬áduring Spring Training, which may have taken a little while to perfect and eventually lead to the velocity increase.

So like Cashner, Ross now throws hard. He didn’t used to, but now he does. Sometimes velocity spikes don’t last, but sometimes they do. It will be important to monitor his velocity during Spring Training and early on in the season because it is a big reason why he is now such an intriguing talent.┬áThe velocity spike fueled a strikeout rate surge, which increased to the point that it actually earned positive value for his fantasy owners. His SwStk% also nearly doubled and ranked ninth among all starters with at least 100 innings pitched.

Also like Cashner, Ross utilizes a slider as his breaking ball of choice. But Ross throws it significantly more often, so much so that he has become essentially a two-pitch pitcher. Ross’ slider is better though and generated a ridiculous 24.8% SwStk% this year. When we encounter pitchers who basically just throw the fastball and slider, we worry about platoon issues. Though Ross was better against right-handers this year as most righties are, he managed to hold left-handers to a 3.87 xFIP, which was an improvement over his previous marks. That offers optimism that he could last in the rotation and his future isn’t in the bullpen.

Though he used his fastball and slider about 98% of the time against right-handers, with the remaining 2% coming from the changeup, he upped his usage of the change to nearly 11% against left-handed batters. That’s still rather low, so perhaps there is an opportunity to improve the pitch and throw it more frequently.

Another thing that Cashner has struggled with is his control, which is exactly what has hurt Ross in the past as well. While the latter’s walk rate this year was acceptable, his F-Strike% was just 54.2%, which was well below the league average and ranked as the seventh lowest among all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. That’s a rather ominous sign of where his walk rate might be headed next year, but like I’ve said many times before, a pitcher’s control is the easiest to improve upon out of the three primary skills (K/9, BB/9, GB%). So I’m okay with questions about his control, as long as it comes with a strong strikeout rate and gobs of ground balls.

The shape of Ross’ performance this year is exactly what I expected from Cashner — strikeouts and ground balls with good enough control. We know that Cashner performed how I hoped from a results perspective, but not how I expected him to do it. While Ross is probably going to have some sort of innings cap next year which will cap his fantasy value, from a per inning perspective, I’ll take him over Cashner in 2014.