Time and time again, there are high-octane pitching prospects who flame out early in their careers. Every once in a while though, there will be a pitcher who puts the pieces together in his mid-to-late twenties, a welcome departure from the all too familiar world of lost potential on the mound.
For three seasons, Tyson Ross looked like an example of a pitcher whose mid-career renaissance made him an ace. While working as a spot starter for the A’s in 2012, Ross compiled a 6.50 ERA in 73.1 innings in his age-25 season. During the offseason, he was shipped to San Diego for two relatively unknown players. That’s where he flourished.
2016 statistics: 1 GS, 5.1 IP, 11.81 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 5 K, 1 BB
2015 statistics: 33 GS, 196 IP, 3.26 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 9.7 K/9, 3.9 BB/9
Age on Opening Day 2017: 29
Position: Right-handed starter
The first thing Ross did in San Diego was learn to locate his slider. Here is a heatmap of his sliders in 2012, with the A’s.
Here is where Ross threw his sliders in 2013, with the Padres:
Ross’s next step was to simply throw his slider a lot more. In 2014 and 2015, his slider was his most commonly used pitch. During that timespan, he threw 391.2 innings over 64 starts, with a 3.03 ERA and 9.35 K/9. He also had an extraordinary groundball rate of 59.2%, due largely to his ability to keep his slider down in the zone.
Unfortunately, the injury bug claimed Ross as a victim in 2016, as he only made one appearance before undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, the same condition that ended Matt Harvey’s 2016 season. Despite being their ace for two seasons, the Padres decided to non-tender Ross, making him a free agent.
A potential explanation for their decision to non-tender Ross is the fact that even though his ERA was that of an ace, his peripheral stats were not. In 2014 and 2015, he walked over three batters per nine innings while maintaining a 1.26 WHIP, two figures which are uncommonly high among front-of-the-rotation starters.
The correlation between slider usage and injuries is debatable at this point. There are pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw who throw tons of sliders and seem to be unaffected. But it should be noted that they have much lower WHIPs than Ross, suggesting that their slider usage allows them to get through innings without throwing as many pitches. A more common belief of late is that these “stress innings” are what really cause injuries in pitchers.
If the Yankees go after Tyson Ross, they will be assuming a lot of risk. They would be pursuing someone who is coming off a shoulder surgery and might not be able to use his most effective pitch to its full potential. According to PITCHf/x, Ross uses a changeup and cutter very sparingly, which could explain the fact that lefties hit him way better than righties do. Of course, this would be a problem in Yankee Stadium.
However, if Ross can return to his 2014-2015 ways, the Yankees would acquire a pitcher with a history of striking batters out while keeping the ball on the ground. Rolling the dice on injured pitchers has not been Brian Cashman’s style in recent years, as the Yankees have passed on pitchers with checkered injury histories like Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Rich Hill. Then again, surprising everyone is also somewhat of an M.O. for Cashman, so you never know until Ross officially signs his next contract.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.
Heatmaps are courtesy of Baseball Savant.