In Tyson Ross' first start of May, he allowed one run in seven innings, striking out five while taking a no-decision against the Diamondbacks. That kicked off a four-start run in which the 27-year-old righty allowed four runs over 28 innings with 29 strikeouts. It also confirmed that the popular sleeper pick back in March was indeed in the midst of a breakout season.
Ross became the object of bargain-hunting fantasy owners' desire after a strong second half last season that coincided with his permanent move to the rotation. In 94 innings as a starter in 2013, Ross had a 3.06 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 97 strikeouts, a 25.7 percent K-rate and an opponents' slash line of .207/.291/.309. He has carried that over into this season, posting a 2.85 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 70 strikeouts and a 22.2 percent K-rate in 75 2/3 innings. What's more, his ground-ball rate is just shy of 60 percent, and opponents are hitting .238/.312/.348 against him.
There isn't a whole lot of mystery to Ross on the mound. He primarily throws three pitches: a traditional four-seam fastball that sits in the 93-94 mph range, a two-seamer/sinker that is just a touch slower on average than his four-seamer, and a slider that generally clocks in around 86-87 mph and has more of a 1-to-7 break on it than a typical slider, which has more movement on the horizontal plane. He will also mix in a changeup to lefties, but he throws it less than five percent of the time. For the most part, he relies on the first three pitches and trusts the sinker and slider to a greater degree than the four-seam fastball.
Back on May 21, Ross fanned eight batters while allowing just one run on three hits in seven innings in a tough-luck loss to the Twins. The video provides a good jumping-off point for a discussion about Ross' favorite strikeout pitch, the slider, and the sinker, as well. But first, a chart, all of which are courtesy of Brooks Baseball. The first one gives all the pertinent details of Ross' four offerings.
The Padres broadcast helpfully noted that a key for Ross in the start would be his success with the slider in two-strike counts. That was on display against the Twins, as six of his eight strikeouts came with the slider. In total this season, 45 of Ross' 70 strikeouts have been with the pitch, and opponents have hit just .237 with a .373 slugging percentage against it. While it gets him in trouble when he wraps around it too much and leaves it up in the zone, it's typically a nasty put-away pitch. The first graph below shows the outcomes for all of Ross' pitches thus far this season, and the second shows swinging-strike and batted-ball rates for each pitch.
A few things from the slider data in the second graph jump right out. First, when hitters swing at it, they miss it nearly half the time. That's one indicator of an absolutely dominant slider. Second, when they do make contact, it's a foul ball one-fifth of the time. Finally, it results in a ground ball about 55 percent of the time it's put in play. That means the slider results in something other than a whiff, foul ball or grounder about 12 percent of the time hitters swing at it. That's impressive.
Hitters take Ross' slider for a ball about one-third of the time, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Anyone's slider is going to miss the zone with regularity, mainly because a pitcher often wants a slider to start out as a strike and then sweep out of the zone. When throwing a slider, a pitcher is typically looking for one of three things: an empty swing, a grounder, or a ball. Ross has gotten one of those three outcomes frequently this season, and it helps to explain why he has had a very nice year.
Now let's check out the sinker. He got one strikeout with the pitch against the Twins, and it comes at the 30-second mark in the video. Never mind that it was Phil Hughes at the plate, because the hitter isn't what matters here. Rather, look at the movement on this pitch. It starts off the plate away, but Ross gets it to back up and dip while catching the outside corner.
The sinker isn't a strikeout pitch in the way Ross' slider is, as just 15 of his 70 strikeouts have come with a sinker for strike three. What it does do perhaps better than the slider, though, is get hitters to make weak contact. Going back to the second chart, hitters have managed just a .313 slugging percentage against the sinker and a .045 isolated slugging percentage. Those are the worst numbers for any of Ross' four pitches.
It has been an ugly year for the Padres, but they have themselves a quality rotation piece for the future in Ross. On the strength of his slider and sinker, and with a 94 mph fastball and occasional changeup to keep hitters honest, Ross has been a breakout starter this year and will be an asset for both the Padres and fantasy owners in the future.