Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 Season Review: Joe Ross

Joe Ross. To most people, he was that other guy in the trade that brought over Trea Turner. Maybe he was thought of as younger, less talented brother to Padres pitcher Tyson Ross. Even those that thought highly of Ross didn’t anticipate him playing a part on the 2015 Nationals. Despite all that, Ross ended up tossing 76 quality big league innings, stepping into the starting rotation spot vacated by Doug Fister after aliens stole his talent with a glowing baseball.

Over those 76 innings, Ross posted a 3.64 ERA with a 3.42 FIP and 3.62 xFIP. In other words, it wasn’t a total fluke that Ross was successful. By the end of the year, he had posted a slightly above league average strikeout rate of 22% and a slightly above average (as in lower than the league average) walk rate of 7%. Using a three pitch mix of a fastball with sink, slider, and change up, Ross was able to limit hard contact. Only 16% of balls put in play against Ross were classified as line drives, the type of batted ball most likely to fall for a hit. On top of that, Ross forced groundballs at a 50% rate, solidly above the league average rate of 45%. With lots of movement on his 93 MPH fastball and biting slider, Ross induced swings on pitches outside of the zone 35% of the time compared to the league’s average of 31%. So, to sum it up, Ross struck out opposing batters a little better than the rest of the league, walked batters less often the rest of the league, and forced batters to swing outside of the zone a little more often than the league, inducing weak contact in the process. Not a bad mix, no?

The trouble with Ross is just how little of a track record he has, even after the 2015 season. Sure, he threw 76 major league innings, but he got shut down near the end of the season because he had thrown a career high 153 innings on the year. Going back to examine Ross’ minor league numbers is difficult. Ignoring the fact that Ross was clearly growing and changing as a young pitcher during his time in the minors, Ross had results all over the place during his minor league career. On the whole, he impressed enough to stay near the top of most prospect lists, but he hit his speed bumps as well. When he got bumped up a level in the minors, Ross tended to see his strikeout rate drop. Moving from Low A Ball in 2012 to High A Ball, his strikeout rate dropped from 27.5% to 21.6%. The following year, in which he spent the whole year in Single A again, that rate dropped all the way to 15%. Again in 2015, as Ross moved from the Nationals AA squad up to AAA, his strikeout rate dropped from 26.2% to 16.1%. Obviously, that trend didn’t continue when he made the jump to the big leagues. Perhaps he succeeded in striking out hitters at the major league level due to the better scouting reports and better coaching he had access to. Or perhaps it’s a fluke. The data just isn’t there to say for certain.

However Ross did it, there’s no debating he was successful in 2015. So can the Nationals count on Ross come 2016? That’s the million dollar question. His success in 2015 suggests he might be a reliable #4 starter. Some more digging raises some questions, though. He allowed a .220 batting average on the year, an impressive number. However, that batting average was depressed by a .265 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) well below the league average of .300, suggesting there is room for regression there. More distressingly, though Ross has three pitches he uses, he was really a two pitch pitcher in the majors. That change up got thrown only 7% of the time and he went whole games without featuring it.

It’s not hard to understand why the change up got thrown so little. Ross throws his change up 87 MPH, not very differentiated velocity wise from his 93 MPH fastball. On top of that, the change up’s movement is almost identical to his fastball. For a change up to be successful, it needs to be differentiated in speed or movement from the fastball. Ross’s change up does neither, and it showed up in the results. Batters hit a whopping .524 against the change up in 2015.

While the change up is significantly below average, Ross’s slider is close to elite. Batters swung at and missed his slider 25% of the time and hit only .152 against the offering. That 93 MPH fastball does get a lot of movement and results in a lot of groundballs. Combining those two pitches, Ross was effective against hitters who didn’t have much tape or scouting to fall back on. Going into 2016, that won’t be the case. Without changes, Ross will be vulnerable as a two pitch starting pitcher, especially to left handed hitters. Ross and the Nationals know this, so there will likely be a lot of talk in Spring Training about Ross working on his change up or perhaps developing a curve ball.

Joe Ross’s output in 2015 is probably close to his ceiling. He doesn’t have a big enough arsenal to pump his strikeout rate much higher and it will be difficult for him to walk fewer batters considering how few he walked in 2015 to begin with. But a pitcher like Ross who forces groundballs and still earns his fair share of strikeouts can be a reliable pitcher nonetheless. After being limited in innings last year, Ross should be ready to go in 2016 without restriction. The lack of a third pitch will be an issue, but Joe Ross as a #4 or #5 starting pitcher is a situation most teams would be happy to find themselves in.


  1. So bottom line he starts the season on the majors roster as a starter unless Nats add someone else?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It's shaping up that way. Even if he doesn't, he will pitch. Most teams end up using at least 7 starters over the course of the season, so Ross is solid depth if he doesn't crack the rotation to start. Don't forget Giolito is waiting in the minors too and might be up the show by the All Star break