Tyson Ross was always supposed to have bad command. Just look at his mechanics! He’s huge! Look at his minor-league walk rates! Then, Ross came up and — for his first 300+ innings in the big leagues at least — proved the doubters wrong. An better-than-average walk rate happened, at least.
Now, though, Ross has regressed in that category. But figuring out why a walk rate has grown is not the simplest affair. Swings and misses can turn balls into strikes, and changes in pitching mix can bring on command problems. Tentative approaches can turn aggressive stuff into long plate appearances that end with a free pass. More runners on base can beget more runners on base. Ross himself shakes his head at it, but we did our best to try and figure it out together.
If you look at Ross’s pitching mix, there has been change worth noting. From Brooks Baseball, notice that the trends that started way back in 2012 have come to their most extreme conclusion this year: he now throws the slider more than any one pitch, and the four-seamer is a show-me pitch.
Ross admitted that the four-seamer isn’t a primary part of his arsenal any more, and his response might have a clue for us about his walk rate this year. “The four-seamer used to be a pitch that I threw 0-0 and try to get a strike with, but I’m trying to get more feel with the sinker, because that’s a pitch I can throw and have a good margin for error with it in the strike zone.”
In general, he’s right to move away from the four-seamer. It has two inches less fade than your average four-seamer, and though it’s a tick faster than the two-seamer, it suffers badly in ground-ball rate without adding any added whiffs. But by moving to the pitch with more movement, and throwing the slider so often, is it possible that the bendier nature of the pitches he’s throwing more often this year has led to more walks?
If that were true, you’d expect his overall zone percentage to go down. It hasn’t. It’s up from last year, no matter which Zone% you use, and in line with his career rates. His first-strike rate is down a bit, and he does say that he used to use the four-seamer more in those situations. But the difference between last year’s first-strike rate and this year’s is two first strikes. Even if you were to take those two walks away because of those first pitch strikes, you’d be left with a walk rate over four.
If you spend some time down in his plate-discipline stats, you do notice something is different.
It’s not so much about contact rates being a problem — in other words, Ross isn’t missing whiffs that might turn balls into strikes because of his switch to the four-seamer (which has basically the same whiff rate as his two-seamer anyway). But batters are reaching less often.
Yeah, Ross noticed that. “Hitters are just a little more patient with me. The slider maybe isn’t as enticing for guys to chase, or maybe they’re just more aware of it, and they’re just trying to lay off it, and I find myself behind in counts more.”
The difference here is bigger. Ross has lost around 35 swings on pitches outside of the zone this year. And, given his out-of-zone contact rate, that means he’s lost 24 strikes. Turn 24 strikes into balls, and you’ll see some more walks. In fact, turn these “new balls” into six walks, and add it to the two new walks above from the first-pitch strike game, and remove those eight walks from his line, and his walk rate this year would be 3.53 per nine, which is in line with his career number (3.69) and his rest of season projection from ZiPs (3.52).
Maybe we’ve figured out the how, at least. But what about the why? Why are batters being more patient with Ross this year?
The first thought was that his added use of the sinker, which has led to the best ground-ball rate of his career, has allowed a few more baserunners. We know that the Padres’ defense isn’t great — their batting average on balls in play allowed has ballooned from .289 in 2012 to .310 this year — and maybe batters are being more patient with those added runners on base?
Doesn’t look like that’s how batters really work. They swing and reach more when runners are on base, probably in an effort drive the runner home.
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Take a gander at his splits, and maybe we’ve got a last clue. Ross’s walk rate is up against both hands, but bad has gotten worse against lefties (12.4%, 5.1 BB/9). I asked him about his approach against lefties, and he said it was mostly about sequencing: “With a lefty, I might throw a two-seam inside and a slider backfoot, and if it’s a righty, sinker backdoor and a slider is going to dive off visually.”
This seems like a simple approach, and it’s born out in the heat maps, where Ross throws the slider to opposing batters’ back foot while alternating the sinker between the inside and outside corners. But just because the approach as been the same, the swing maps have not been the same. Look at the heat map for lefty swings against Ross in 2014 (left) and 2015 (right).
That backfoot slider isn’t getting as many swings in 2015. If you prefer numbers, lefties used to swing at pitches middle-in and on the plate exactly as often as they swung at the pitch inside off the plate. This year, they’re swinging at the pitch inside and off the plate 77% as often as the pitches inside and on the plate.
Being less predictable may have been why Ross used to throw a four-seamer. But it didn’t work out. “Just not really my pitch,” Ross thought. “Not with my action, kind of built for a sinker/slider combo. So he stopped throwing the pitch and became a two-pitch guy.
He’s got a difficult delivery, and works on “having an athletic leg kick” when he’s trying to get his levers going in the right direction “in sync.” But he says that he’s not having any particular difficulties in that area right now.
More sinkers and a worse defense behind him have led to more runners on base, but that hasn’t — in the past — led to batters swinging less often.
No, if Tyson Ross is having a problem this year, it’s a predictability problem. We laughed about the splitter he’s toyed with his whole career, but a new pitch is the easiest remedy for this particular problem.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.