With my significant other over 5000 miles away, how better to spend Valentine’s Day than writing the next installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. Having yesterday reviewed the most underpaid pitcher in all of baseball during 2013 – Francisco Liriano – and (probably foolishly) expressed the hope that his inconsistent days were behind him, I today look at another pitcher who experienced a pseudo-breakout last year. Pegged by ESPN’s Buster Olney to win a wild-card spot this year, the San Diego Padres will need Tyson Ross to continue where he left off in 2013 if they are to meet expectations.
John Sickel’s 2009 scouting report concluded with the comment “… has very good stuff but is still figuring out what to do with it.” Five years later, having had the team that originally drafted him effectively give up on his eventual development, Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres, has worked out the recipe for success. Or at least it appeared that way over a 13 game stretch at the end of last season.
Drafted in the 2nd Round back in 2008 by the A’s, the Padres cheaply acquired Ross (for utility infielder Andy Parrino and pitcher Andrew Werner) in November 2012 after a season in which he made 13 starts and compiled an undesirable 6.50 ERA. That he came at such a low price was understandable; the power arm that Oakland envisioned never materialized, as Ross’ funky motion – Baseball Prospectus pitching mechanics expert Doug Thorburn said Ross had “zero momentum and a short stride” – inspired neither strikeouts nor any measure of control. 4 years after Sickel said Ross was “still figuring out” his stuff, he remained stuck doing just that; a stalled prospect of little value, Oakland had other needs to fill, and sent him packing. Once the Padres got their hands on him prior to 2013 however, something changed.
His development turned over to San Diego’s pitching coach Darren Balsley, Ross’ preseason work focused not on completely overhauling his irregular delivery, but on repeating his timing better, and simplifying his repertoire. It apparently worked. With his improved preparation, Ross saw his fastball velocity leap to the extent that he averaged 94.9mph with the pitch in his final start of the season, the culmination of a 13 game stretch that has Padres fans excited for 2014. Having become effectively a two-pitch starter (Ross threw his fastball and slider a combined 98% of the time to RHB in 2013, and 89% to LHB – his change up constituting the remainders), the 26 year-old dominated post All-Star break; in 80 IP, Ross allowed just 56 hits (opponents batted just .201) en route to a 2.93 ERA. His strikeout rate too climbed; after recording a meager 5.7 K/9 through 70-plus innings in 2012, Ross amassed 85 Ks in the second half, a statistical climb attributable to not just the improved fastball velocity, but the emergence of a deadly slider.
Even though batters mostly knew what was coming – pretty much either a heater or the slider – they could do little about it. Per Fangraphs, Ross’ was the third-most valuable of all sliders thrown (measured by value metric “wSL”) behind only AL Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish and NL Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano. On that pitch alone, Ross induced batters into swinging strikes 24.8% of the time, as opponents hit just .145, with an isolated power mark of .030. Its emergence also gave Ross a way to strike out lefties, who made contact far less often than in years prior, and with weaker results when they did; his 3.87 xFIP when facing LHB was a significant improvement on the platoon splits that plagued Ross’ early career. Able to now strike batters out on both sides of the plate, Ross’ reliance on the slider also induced ground balls at an elite rate – his 2.00 GB/FB suggesting that his success was independent of Petco Park’s famed friendliness towards pitchers.
Ross will be part of a 2014 Padres rotation full of reclamation projects; having acquired Andrew Cashner from the Cubs in 2012, the Friars added Ian Kennedy from Arizona last July, and signed Josh Johnson in free agency this past offseason. With Joaquin Benoit signed to replace the departed Luke Gregerson as the Padres setup man, and Huston Street in reserve for the ninth inning, San Diego’s pitching should prove to be the team’s strength. Leading the way will be Ross, who according to Balsey last year “wants to be dominant.” Slated to earn just $1.98 million this year, if Ross can replicate that second-half line (2.93 ERA, 80 IP, 56 H, 23 BB, 85 K) over a full season of work in 2014, he not only will steal Liriano’s throne as the most underpaid pitcher in baseball, but will have achieved his goal – he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the NL. And probably the only one operating with just two pitches.
Small sample size be damned, Padres fans should be excited about their young righty; it may have taken a few years and a change of scenery, but Ross looks to have finally figured it out.