Mark Simon at ESPN.com recently wrote a piece detailing the virtues of Tyson Ross and the fact that he has gone relatively unnoticed playing in San Diego for the Padres. Ross’s ability to produce a high number of ground balls and a low number of hard-hit balls gives Simon reason to consider him as a potential NL Cy Young candidate in 2016.
Ross does indeed produce an inordinately high number of ground balls. As mentioned at ESPN, his 62% GB rate ranked third in the majors last year. For comparison’s sake, starters in the MLB averaged 45.2%, giving Ross almost 1.4 times as many ground balls. The article also references his low hard-hit rate (~9%) and Ross confirms this occurs because he tries to induce “weak contact”.
How does Ross achieve this? And what would it take for him to become a bona fide Cy Young candidate in 2016? The answer to both questions is the classic mantra: “location, location, location”.
Origins of Success
Let’s address Ross’s high level of groundballs and poor contact first and look at his “heat map” of pitch location, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
As a right-handed pitcher, Ross throws almost 60% of his pitches in the low and away (from his arm) part of the map. Even more astonishingly, 35% of his pitches hit or just miss the corner of the strike zone in that low and away box. This is excellent location against both right-handed and left-handed batters; righties are unable to reach out to make solid contact, and lefties have difficulty squaring up on a pitch so far down and inside.
Looking in particular at this bottom-right corner, we see further evidence for this theory: when hitters do swing at these pitches, they have a high percentage of “whiffs” at almost 60%! In particular, Tyson’s ability to target the extreme bottom corner of this map is lethal; hitters have an 85% miss rate, giving them an incredibly small chance to make solid contact, let alone contact at all.
If a batter does manage to make contact in that bottom corner, they’re not likely to reach base either. As detailed in the Advanced Pitcher Statistics, the average BABIP is .300, but Tyson is able to keep this metric as low as .260 for the bottom corner. This only further demonstrates his tendency to suppress solid contact.
Breaking Out on the National Scene
Working tantalizingly away from righties and suffocatingly close to lefties, Ross’s ability to locate pitches (specifically his slider, as mentioned at ESPN) has enabled him to become one of the more successful pitchers in the NL. But as Mark Simon mentions, Tyson has not received much respect nationally, with his lone honor being named to the 2014 NL All-Star team. With the Padres hosting the MLB All-Star game at Petco Park in San Diego this year, Ross has a decent shot to become a major story line in the first half of the season. To be able to do this though, he’ll need to work on a few things, again dealing with location.
Establishing the Fastball
Tyson himself mentions his first issue: fastball command and attacking the zone early in counts. Let’s look at the heat map below to examine the issue. In the first pitch of plate appearances, Ross’s use of the fastball does not measure up to his use elsewhere in the count.
As we can see, Ross continues to target the bottom corner, but he also has an issue with elevating his fastball too. Of those 0-0 fastballs, 40% of them hit the top part of the map. This is nearly double the 23% we see in the first map of the post. Adding to this, that high percentage of pitches in the very bottom right corner? They are nowhere near as effective, drawing exactly 0 swings (and thus no whiffs either).
In fact, Ross drew very little swings at first pitch fastballs in general, only 14%. This hardly constitutes “going after hitters” early in the count. The small consolation to this is that batters had exactly 1 hit on balls that were put in play. If Ross is able to locate his pitches lower in the zone, he should be able to draw even more ground balls early in the count, getting quicker outs. The effect of this is twofold; First, outs are quickly and easily accumulated, preventing batters from finding a rhythm. Secondly, Ross puts less stress on his arm, setting him up to work deeper into games. Working effortlessly through lineups is a staple attribute of “aces” and would go a long way to helping Tyson become an All-Star and Cy Young candidate.
Lowering the Walk Rate
Another issue currently preventing Ross from excelling lies in his walk rate. As the ESPN article mentions, he led the league with a 10% walk rate while the average for starters was much lower at 7.1%. But what causes this? Even though he threw so many pitches out of the zone, Ross was still able to draw a high number of whiffs from those pitches. To find the answer, let’s examine three charts 1) Ross’s general pitch outcome distribution 2) Ross’s pitch outcome distribution with 3 balls and any number of strikes, and 3) Ross’s pitch outcome distribution with a full count. Obviously, there is some overlap amongst the three groups, but if we are able to observe stark differences between groups, it might indicate something further.
Surveying these charts, there are a few things that jump out. First, Ross is predominantly a slider pitcher, as mentioned before. Ross ranked first in the MLB amongst starters with at least 20 IP, throwing almost 42% sliders. Meanwhile, the MLB average trailed far behind at 12.5%. Despite Ross’s high walk rate, he actually displays pretty good location with his slider; across all counts, he averages a 31.6% ball rate on the pitch. Even more impressively, this rate decreases to around 27% in 3-ball and full counts.
If Ross relies heavily on his slider, and his ability to locate it does not fade in hitter’s counts, what is causing the high walk rate? The easy answer would be to blame another of his less used pitches, but both his 4-seam fastball and sinker do not have appreciably higher ball rates in hitter’s counts. In fact, his 4-seam fastball sees a precipitous drop in ball rates as the count turns in the hitter’s favor. From this, we know there must be something at fault with the slider.
As mentioned, Tyson does a pretty reliable job locating his slider throughout counts. Even though his ball rate does not increase however, observe how Ross generates his strikes across counts. Generally, Ross locates almost 40% of his sliders for non-fouled strikes. Once Ross is in a 3-ball count, however, this number drops down to almost 30%, and even lower at 27% in full counts! If there aren’t more balls being thrown, what is happening to these pitches that turns them into walks? Look now to his Swing% and Foul% across the counts.
Ross sees a notable uptick in swing percentage on his slider, from 52% in all counts, to 61% and 67% in 3-ball and full counts, respectively. In addition to this, the foul rate increases from 14% in all counts to approximately 20% in the hitter’s counts. While there are some caveats here with small sample sizes and statistical overlap, the consistencies in the other fields observed suggest that this could be the variable that is causing Ross to walk so many batters.
What this departure from the norm suggests is that Ross may rely on his fantastic slider too much. Because he throws the pitch so often, batters see the pitch more often. This allows them to “time” the pitch better, causing them to swing more. While we see that this leads to more balls in play (and more ground balls) like he desires, it also leads to less whiffs. In other words, Ross throws his slider so often that if he does not get an early out, hitters are able to identify the pitch and foul off enough pitches to ultimately a) draw a walk or b) put the ball in play, costing Ross valuable strikeout opportunities with his above-average slider.
This ties back into Ross’s own point about fastball location and attacking the hitter. If he takes the leap forward with his fastball in 2016 establishing it early in counts, hitters will be less prepared for his wipeout slider later in counts. Tyson has a very real opportunity to gain exposure amongst the national audience with the All-Star game in San Diego this year. He’s already demonstrated his ability to be a consistent and effective pitcher with 2.3 and 3.1 bWAR in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Playing in the “quiet” confines of Petco Park (Park Factor of 93) will also help keep his run numbers down going forward. If he can pull it all together in 2016 with his fastball, you may very well see Tyson Ross appearing on some NL Cy Young ballots this fall.
What do you think? Will Tyson Ross emerge this year as one of the league’s best pitchers? Will the Padres moves of the past two offseasons prevent him from having the supporting cast he needs? Or is San Diego just not enough of a baseball town to handle the league’s ace? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog.