Heading into the 2014 season, I was all about Tyson Ross and wanted to own him everywhere. He was coming off a 2013 campaign with the Padres where he spent most of the season as a relief pitcher before transitioning into becoming a full time starting pitcher. When transitioning from a reliever to a starter, a pitcher will usually lose velocity on his pitches, but Ross actually saw his average fastball reach new heights in velocity as it sat at 94.2 MPH on the year (compared to around 92.5 MPH the previous years). The increase in velocity, his killer slider, the home park, and the low profile that he had since he had never before been a full time Major League starting pitcher are all factors that made him very attractive as a breakout player for 2014. Besides the ugly 13-14 record, which is by no fault of his own, Ross did not disappoint for fantasy owners. The righty finished the 2014 season with a 2.81 ERA and 1.21 WHIP while striking out 195 batters in 195.2 IP. That all sounds like fun and games from a pitcher who is on the rise, so why is it that going into this season I had him ranked much lower than anyone else out there?
There is no questioning the filthiness of Ross’ slider as it was the most valuable slider in the league last year among starting pitchers who were not named Clayton Kershaw. However, it was a pitch that he used a whopping 41.2% of the time, and the slider pitch has been known to be the most stressful on a pitcher’s arm. Furthermore, at the end of the 2014 season, Ross missed his last scheduled start due to a slight strain of a muscle in his pitching forearm. It was said to just be a precaution to shut him down for the remainder of last season since the Padres had nothing to play for, but it still was a concerning injury for a pitcher who relies on such heavy slider usage and a pitcher who can struggle with his control. Coming into 2015, I viewed Ross as a bigger injury risk than most other pitchers and also a candidate for a little bit of regression with his walk rate. Ross had never been one to be able to limit the free passes as he had a walk rate of 3.76 BB/9 in the Minors and a similar mark of 3.75 BB/9 in the Majors before his breakout 2014 season. In addition, Ross was coming off a career high 195.2 IP in 2014, which was a big 70 inning increase over the previous year, and blew past his previous career high of 151.2 IP from 2012.
So far after 7 starts this season, Ross has 1-3 record while compiling a 3.98 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. Ross is still using his slider upwards of 40% of the time, so I still view him as a candidate to come down with an arm injury. But with the greatness of that pitch, Ross is striking out batters at even a higher rate than last year with 10.62 K/9. However, as predicted, his walk rate has regressed to an incredibly high mark of 5.09 BB/9. Ross is actually pitching the ball in the zone at a little bit higher rate than he did the last couple of seasons and getting swings and misses at almost the same rate as last year, but what has dramatically changed is the amount of swings he is inducing on pitches outside of the zone, as that mark is down to 27.4% after being at 33.4% last year. Meanwhile, his zone swing rate is up from 62.3% last year to 65.6 % this year. So with more swings in the zone, less swings out of the zone, and a stable swinging strike rate, it would suggest that when Ross is missing the strike zone he is missing badly a lot of the time so hitters are not even tempted to swing, which is leading to a lot of walks.
There is no easy fix for the increase in walks. With pitchers who have had past control issues or who have never displayed anything more than a mediocre walk rate, it can vary a lot from year to year what type of control that they show. It can be something that Ross turns around, but until he does he is going to be susceptible to a high WHIP and subsequently a higher ERA because there is another fault in his game: allowing stolen bases. Last year, base runners were 31 for 41 in stolen base attempts when Ross was on the mound. So far this season versus Ross, base runners are 11 for 13 in just 7 games, and some of those stolen bases have been allowed to a lot of guys who wouldn’t be classified as “fast” such as Howie Kendrick, Colby Rasmus, Anthony Rizzo (2), and David Peralta. Watching Ross pitch last night for a little bit against Arizona, he is pretty slow to the plate. So if he is walking a lot of guys, then that means there are going to often be a lot of guys on first base to potentially steal second base. And obviously it is easier to score from second base, so that would seemingly lead to more runs allowed.
I wish the bad news about Ross ended here, but it does not. One might look at his BABIP and think that he is getting unlucky with a .336 BABIP so some positive regression is in store for him in that regard. But remember when the Padres were on a mission in the off-season to infuse their lineup with big mashing bats like Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Will Middlebrooks? Well, shocker alert! None of them are very good at defense and the Padres as a whole are ranked dead last (by a lot) in defensive efficiency. So while his BABIP should come down some, I would definitely not expect it to be as low as the marks of .291 and .282 that he had in his last two seasons with the Padres, and I imagine it will be on the wrong side of .300 by season’s end.
So while Ross is a heavy groundball pitcher and can erase some of the walks allowed with double plays (but he hasn’t yet with just 1 double play induced), there are still a lot of things working against him. The strikeouts will still be there, but I don’t think the sub-3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP will be repeatable. More likely is a 3.50-3.75 ERA and WHIP around 1.30. Or even worse, he can suffer a serious arm injury with all those sliders. So to answer the question of are Tyson’s punch outs enough? They might be, but Kid Dynamite might be ready to explode and knock him out.