Spring Training is at the halfway point, and I am sure that I am not the only one who has been tuning in to watch the Nationals‘ Grapefruit League games. There is still so much to talk about in regards to this team before spring training wraps up. Wanting to discuss Joe Ross at some point, this is a good time to do it.
We probably know the back story. Ross came up to the majors in 2015 at 22 and between then and 2016, he started 32 games, pitched 181 innings with an ERA of 3.52 and a K/9 of 8.03. He looked like he was quickly going to establish himself as a solid #3 starter who could give you solid, if somewhat unspectacular innings.
In 2017 though, things quickly went off the rail and after 13 starts of a 5.01 ERA, he was shutdown for the year after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and had Tommy John surgery. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether Joe Ross will be able to get back to his old form or if this is the new norm. Many people are not particularly confident, especially considering he pitched 16 innings at the tail of last year while logging another 5+ ERA, and a horrific K/9 of 3.94
On the surface things are not inspiring. However, there is a lot more here if we just dig a little bit deeper. A lot of it involves the pitcher Ross was, is, and hopefully will be.
So let’s get to some actual info and go for a deep dive.
The key component here is going to be Joe Ross’ pitches. The former Padres first rounder is known for his dominant slider. It is very similar to the slider his older brother Tyson Ross throws. The slider is the pitch both of these guys have to have working on a consistent basis to be effective. Before we get to the slider though, we first need to talk about the fastball. The effectiveness of Ross’ slider doesn’t matter much if every fastball he throws is a meatball.
2015 – 2017 Fastball
Unfortunately for Joe Ross, his fastball is not that good. It’s not that it is terrible, but the pitch has essentially been average. He primarily throws a sinker, which in that 32 game sample from 2015-16 he threw around an average of 93.5 MPH, topping off just a tad over 95 MPH. So not a bad pitch velocity wise by any means. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else going for his sinker. He was around average location wise, but the pitch also has below average movement for a sinker.
Between 2015-16 though, Joe Ross did throw a straight 4-seam fastball, but only 4 times. It is probably more likely these were 2 seamers/sinkers that just were picked up wrong by the software that categorizes pitches on velo and movement. However, in 2017, all of a sudden 52 of the 652 fastball he threw were 4-seam variety. That is compared to the 4 of 1,584 from 2015 to 2016. Unfortunately, his straight fastball is not good. While his sinker has managed to be rated around average, the 4-seamer fastball in 2017 was not that.
The story is not over though. We’re going to dig even deeper. Why did Ross try to throw a 4-seam fastball in 2017, and why was it so much worse than his sinker? This is where things get more interesting, because according to Fangraphs and Pitch Info Solutions, Joe Ross did throw straight fastballs in 2016, but he didn’t throw any in 2017. This conflicts with info from other sites like Baseball Savant. So did he or did he not throw them?
Time to look at some graphs!
It is essentially the opposite of what baseball Savant thinks. The colors do change which I know can be confusing. In 2017 though, we see that the vast majority of his fastballs have more than -5 horizontal movement, and under 10 vertical movement. In the 2016 data though, we can see that the FA (4 seam fastballs) seem to be globbed right around the -5/10 mark. What it essentially looks like is the 2017 data is less compact. He had more pitches with less vertical movement, and his changeup in particular is operating completely differently.
While this shows us there are differences in his fastball from 2016-2017, we still haven’t answered why Baseball Savant and Baseball Info Solutions disagree on what pitches he is throwing. Baseball Savant has a tid bit of extra data though which I think points towards the problem. Namely, that his spin rate has been off.
In that 2015-16 period, Ross’ sinker averaged around 1990 RPM. In 2017 that number dropped a tiny bit to around 1971. Ross’ 42 4-seamers averaged 1979 RPM. In other words, the two pitches are incredibly similar. More than likely, these two systems have slightly different interpretations of what makes a pitch a fastball vs a sinker. Joe Ross seems to be toeing that line.
In 2018, Joe Ross came back from TJ and seemingly decided (either he or the organization) to change the way he was going to pitch. Most notably, he went from 3.6% FA in 2017, to a whopping 31%! That was 6% more than he used his sinker that year. However, as with previous years, this pitch was so much worse than his sinker. Horrifically so, so much so that I will simply put it right here in all caps, “JOE ROSS SHOULD NOT BE THROWING A FOUR SEAM FASTBALL EVER”. Here are a couple of simple stats to illustrate my point, all from 2018.
These numbers are not mistakes. He literally had a slugging and batting average that was 2x as bad on the 4-seam fastball as sinker. Now, obviously, these are both small samples. It’s the sample we have to use though, given that he has never thrown as high a percentage of straight fastballs at any other point in his career. Now, if you go to Baseball Savant, you will see that the expected outcome stats (which tries to predict outcomes from quality of contact) closes the gap between these two quite a bit. Suggesting that maybe the 4-seam is not as bad as first appears.The last stat though really shows how much he needs the sinker though. Whiff% is one of the best indicators of a good pitch. No other metric correlates as high with pitcher success, as their ability to induce swinging strikes. Ross’ sinker produced over double the number of swing and misses in our small sample. In fact, between his sinker, slider and changeup, in his (once again) small sample, he would have out produced MLB Whiff% leader had he kept it up all year (last years Whiff% leader among qualified pitchers, is none other than Max Scherzer). So that 16.7% Whiff rate on the sinker is actually really good. Probably unsustainably good, as he only averaged around 11-12% in his 2 best seasons.
The Joe Ross Slider
Joe Ross’ bread and butter pitch is the slider. As I said before, Joe Ross only works if Joe Ross’ slider is working. I don’t know if there is too much for me to go into. From 2015-17 it averaged over a 37% Whiff rate. Even in the very brief (56) number of times he threw it last year, it was still a fantastic pitch. It produced an above average whiff rate, and the expected contact from it was excellent.
However, there is a glaring need to talk about his slider more than anything, because Joe Ross stopped throwing it last year. In 2016, at Ross’ peak he was throwing the Slider close to 40% of the time. Last year, all of a sudden in 3 games it was only 22%. His changeup went from 8% use rate to a 20% use rate. While that pitch was better in 2017-18 then it had been the two years prior, it is still nowhere near as good as his slider.
There have been studies that suggest that Slider’s in part are a factor in increasing a pitchers injury risk. However, I should point out that numerous studies have also suggested this may not be true. It is possible that they asked Ross to throw fewer Sliders to reduce injury risk. It’s possible that was a temporary measure last year coming back, and that he will be allowed to throw 40% sliders again this year. It is also entirely possible that, with the season already over by the time he got back, they wanted him to work on his change-up more. Giving him a chance to use and practice it at the highest level without there being significant damage in the form of losing important games. Personally, I’m leaning more towards a combination of 2 & 3, or at the very least hoping that is the case.
Especially, since I think the Nationals just gained a resource that could benefit Ross tremendously. More than anything else Ross has to secure a third pitch if he is going to be effective as a starter. The changeup has been getting better, but it is still below average. Once again there is a small discrepancy, in that Baseball Info Solutions thinks he throws a curveball occasionally and Baseball Savant doesn’t. Regardless, he needs to add something to his arsenal other than the slider, something else that can play off the fastball.
The late Jeff Sullivan wrote a fantastic piece in early January talking about the development of Patrick Corbin’s Slider. Or rather, the development of his slider’s changeup.
“I don’t know,” Corbin said. “I don’t really know what it is. It’s the same grip (as the slider). It’s just something else. Sometimes I’ll throw it harder or slower. I just mix speeds with it. It’s like two pitches. When I’m locating my fastball inside, too, it makes that pitch much better.”
Corbin’s 2018 success, was largely driven by this new pitch he developed. In 2017, Corbin had 1 slider. Then suddenly in 2018 he had 2. The same pitch, thrown from the same spot, with similar movement, but vastly differing speeds. I hope the Nationals are aware that this is an opportunity to have a new veteran help a young pitcher out. Sullivan even interestingly enough, names a pitcher who he thinks could most benefit from this, and it just so happens to be Joe’s brother Tyson.
2019 Joe Ross
To start the season, Ross looks destined to begin his season in the minors. Injury or performance could change that, but as it stands now — that is the direction it is looking like right now. He has to be able to show in Triple-A that he is still a MLB pitcher. The ERA of 5.07 last year really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t do much other than tell us he allowed a lot of runs. Sometimes pitchers do that. The horrible K/9 of under 4.0 though tells us that the stuff was not good. We’ve already discussed why that may be, with a lot of the blame I think being shouldered by the horrible 4 seamer he threw.
There was a lot to like in the 2 innings from Ross on Saturday though. He threw 2 innings, and gave up only 1 hit and 1 walk, while striking out 2 batters. According to this note, the fastball averaged 89-92 with the slider in the low 80s. In 2016 and 2018 his sinker averaged 93.4 MPH. In his lost 2017, that was down to 91.8. That doesn’t mean there is immediate cause for alarm. Fastball velocities tend to be down in spring training, and even into the beginning of the regular season. So it wouldn’t be alarming to see that tick back up to 91-95 by April/May. His slider velocity is a little more interesting. From 2016-2018, his slider velocities averaged, 84.5, 85.6 and 87.1 MPH. It’s really hard to pinpoint what the optimal velocity is for a slider. Different pitchers throw different sliders; The Met’s became famous for the Dan Warthen slider, which is only a few MPH slower than a pitcher’s fastball. Chris Sale though, who has a fantastic slider, has a 15 MPH gap between his slider and fastball. As mentioned, Corbin has two sliders, which obviously have fairly different speed differences from his fastball.
What I can point out, is that last years small sample slider did have the worst Whiff% and some of the worst results compared to other years. The pitch wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite as great as it had been. Maybe those 2 extra ticks are in part to blame. It would seem though with his slider in the low 80’s last night, that the Slider he will be featuring in 2019 is closer to the one he threw from 2015-17.
Joe Ross is a key, but sometimes a forgotten part of the Nationals future. It wasn’t long ago that we were looking at him as an anchor in the bottom-middle of the rotation. He can still be that, but now he has to reprove that is he still that pitcher. Saturday night’s game was good start to doing that. If Joe Ross wants to be successful in the majors though, he is going to have to improve.
If Joe Ross can never develop that 3rd pitch, at some point I wouldn’t mind seeing him moved into the bullpen full-time. While I don’t think he could be on the level of pitchers like Josh Hader, it’s not hard to see his stuff playing up big in a more limited role. That, given with his ability to go multiple innings, and he could be a lethal option out of the bullpen, with the potential to soak up multiple high leverage innings in one game.