Joe Ross is back, which is good news for the Nationals and fantasy owners

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Thursday May 25th, 2017

Joe Ross returned to the Nationals rotation Tuesday after spending nearly one month in the minors. A second trip to the minors was more unlikely than the first, but if his first start is any indication, his short stint at Triple-A Syracuse will look like nothing more than a blip on the radar of a successful season.

Ross shut down the Mariners for eight innings allowing one run on five hits, striking out six and walking none. The Mariners’ lone mark of the night came on a Mike Zunino solo homer. Outside of that, Ross was electric. He induced 10 whiffs and 12 groundouts, including two double plays. Both of those twin killings came with a man on first and nobody else on base, so Ross was never in any trouble in the start. He lived at 93–94 mph with his fastball to start the game, and while his velocity declined as the night wore on, his early heat set the foundation for him to go to his secondary pitches. It was just the sort of outing that eluded him before his demotion, and the perfect way for him to announce his return to the majors.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard for Ross this season. The 24-year-old made 32 starts over the last two years, essentially a full season’s worth of turns through the rotation. He pitched to a 3.52 ERA, 3.46 FIP and 1.22 WHIP with 162 strikeouts in 181 2/3 innings across those 32 outings, essentially locking in a mid-rotation floor in his age-23 season. He struggled in April, allowing 13 earned runs and 20 hits in 15 2/3 innings, but it would have been a shock for him to completely deviate from the trajectory he had set for himself over his first two seasons. Tuesday’s start gives us some hard evidence that April’s struggles were nothing more than the natural vagaries of a baseball career and season.

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If you were designing a distribution of outs that illustrated Ross at his most effective, six strikeouts and 12 groundouts would likely be it. Like his older brother Tyson, Joe gets by on three pitches. While Tyson throws both a four-seamer and sinker, in addition to a wipeout slider, Joe eschews the four-seamer entirely, going with a sinker, slider and changeup. The one thing those pitches have in common is that they all dive down when the get into the hitting zone. When Ross is on, hitters can’t help putting them on the ground when they make contact. That fate befell the Mariners on Tuesday.

Let’s take a look at the sort of contact Ross is able to induce with his two primary pitches the sinker and slider. Again, Ross got outs on 10 grounders against the Mariners, with two of those going for double plays. Just two of the 10 balls were hit sharply, with exit velocities better than 90 mph. Of course, one of the great things about grounders is that even hard-hit ones are going to find gloves plenty of the time, certainly more often than line drives or hard-hit fly balls. Still, it’s the amount of weak ground-ball contact Ross generated that was so impressive.

We’ll start in the top of the second, with Kyle Seager at the plate. Ross fell behind Seager 3–0, putting Seattle’s third baseman in the driver’s seat. In a vacuum, Seager is always going to have a 3–0 green light. Certain game situations might dictate otherwise, but, generally, Scott Servais will rightly trust his veteran slugger to attack a 3–0 pitch he can drive, and lay off anything else. That’s certainly the case in a scoreless game in the second inning with one out and no one on base.

Ross finds the plate with a 94-mph sinker on 3–0, and you can imagine Seager’s eyes lighting up for a split second. You can also imagine the sinking feeling he got when the pitch darted violently to the bottom of the strike zone.

That’s a pitcher’s pitch on 3–0 if there ever was one. Not only is it going to be a strike if Seager takes it, it’s good enough to induce a swing, and likely to produce weak contact if he makes contact. That’s exactly what happens, getting Ross out of a precarious situation against a dangerous hitter.

Just for good measure, here’s another dangerous hitter, Jean Segura, grounding out weakly on a Ross sinker.

Speaking of dangerous hitters, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz combined to go 0-for-6 against Ross. He got them both to hit comebackers on sliders in the seventh inning. We’ll start with Cano’s because, on its face, it doesn’t seem like Ross did much to get the out.

That’s not exactly a great pitch. It’s not a particularly biting slider, and Ross missed his spot by multiple feet. The only way a pitcher gets a hitter like Cano to swing at a pitch like that, though, is if he completely fools him. The best way to do that is through effective sequencing.

Ross started the at-bat by doubling up on his changeup. He had Cano way out in front of the second one, as you can see here.

Ross then came back with the sinker, and while the pitch missed well off the plate outside, it showed Cano a different velocity with similar movement. The defensive half-swing from Cano on Ross’s bad slider proves that he thought he was getting another sinker. Ross won this one with his mind.

Ross beat Cruz more conventionally. This slider is simply a nasty pitch, moving from strike to ball and neutralizing Cruz on a 2-1 offering.

This is Ross at his best, mixing his three pitches and living down in the zone to generate ground ball after ground ball. His slider doesn’t have the same cartoonish movement as brother Tyson’s, and he doesn’t throw quite as hard, so he’s not likely to become the same sort of strikeout artist his brother was before his injury. He can, however, be the same sort of ground-ball artist, and that’s nearly as good, at least when it comes to dominating opposing lineups.

We would be remiss if we didn’t include some footage of the 10 whiffs Ross got on Tuesday. For that, we turn to Mike Zunino for help. Now, remember, Zunino took Ross deep for the Mariners only run in this game. That came on a sinker in the sixth inning. Zunino’s next at-bat was in the 8th, which would be a 1-2-3 inning for Ross in which he struck out the side, the perfect capper for his night. Ross got two whiffs at of Zunino this time around, bouncing back from the previous meeting and owning the plate appearance with a lovely bit of sequencing.

Pitch one, slider away, foul ball, 0–1.

Pitch two, slider down, whiff, 0–2.

Pitch three, slider down and away, taken, 1–2.

It’s clearly the end of Ross’s night. He’s running out of steam. He has thrown Zunino three straight sliders, and the last sinker Zunino saw, he drilled into the left-field stands. There’s no way he’s getting another one here, right? Wrong.

It may have been just one start, but Ross appears to be back on the course he set for himself over the first two years of his career. He’ll be a strong asset in all fantasy formats the rest of the way.

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