Tyson Ross Talks Sliders, Cutters, and Pitch Design

Tyson Ross has had an uneven career since being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Oakland Athletics. Along with his original organization, he’s pitched for the San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, and now the Detroit Tigers. Injuries have been an issue. Currently on the 60-day Injured List with ulnar nerve neuritis, the 32-year-old right-hander previously underwent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery in 2016.

When healthy, he’s been a quality big-league pitcher. Ross was an All-Star with the Padres in 2014, and the following year he led the National League in games started. His ERA over that two-season stretch was 3.03, while his K/9 was a robust 9.4. A mid-90s fastball played in a big role in that success, but it’s never been his best pitch. Ross has — when at full strength — one of the game’s best sliders.

Ross talked about his signature pitch, as well the cutter his college coach didn’t know he threw, and what he’s learned since purchasing a Rapsodo, when the Tigers visited Fenway Park in late April.

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David Laurila: You’re known for your slider. What is the history behind it?

Tyson Ross: “It’s always been my go-to pitch. I went to college at Cal-Berkeley and threw a ton of sliders when I was there. But I originally learned the pitch when I was 11 years old. I was in All Stars, playing third base, and we ended up needing an emergency pitcher. I could get on the mound and throw strikes with a fastball, but I needed a second pitch. My buddy’s dad said, ‘Hey, grip it like this and throw it like a fastball.’ The second or third one broke. He didn’t actually call it a slider — he just called it a breaking ball — but it felt good in my hand, and I’ve been throwing it the same way ever since.”

Laurila: Is there anything unique about it?

Ross: “Nothing special. It just works the way it does, for whatever reason.”

Laurila: I assume there’s been a lot of fine-tuning over the years.

Ross: “Yes. My pitching coach in college, Dan Hubbs…. a slider was his best pitch. He played in the minors — he got as high as Triple-A — and he used his breaking ball as his featured pitch. He taught me how to allow for the break, and where to start it in different lanes. For instance, if the glove is down here, you want to target the catcher’s left shoulder.”

Laurila: You throw a cutter, as well.

Ross: “My junior year [at Cal-Berkeley] is when I started to develop the cutter. I was throwing a lot of breaking balls, and having a lot of success with it, but I wanted to mix in fastballs a little bit more. One day I was tinkering around in the outfield, and I figured out a grip for a cut fastball. What ended up happening is that the coaches would call for a slider, the catcher and I were on the same page — ‘Hey, let’s throw a cutter’ — and we’d get the swing-and-miss. It looked like a slider, but I knew that what I was throwing was a fastball variation.

“That’s how I came up with a cutter, in college, and I used it a little bit in the minor leagues. I then came up [to the big leagues] as a reliever and cut back to two pitches. Part way through 2015, I started throwing a cutter again.”

Laurila: Cutters and sliders are similar, yet different…

Ross: “As is every pitch in baseball.”

Laurila: How differently do you manipulate the two?

Ross: “I just hold it in different spots, and my brain knows it’s going to be a different pitch. But really, it’s got the action… with the slider, I have the intent of making it look like a fastball; I allow for the break and it’s going to have more of a downward plane. With the cutter, it’s going to have — depending on how shallow or deep I hold it in my hand — more of a horizontal break, with maybe just a little bit of downward plane. It’s really about the side-to-side, as opposed to that north-to-south.”

Laurila: Do you throw variations of each, either in terms of shape or velocity?

Ross: “Yeah. Sometimes you throw something a little harder; sometimes you flip it in there. The name of a pitch isn’t anything but a name. It’s all about the action on it. A backdoor slider to a lefty is different than a slider down-and-away to a righty, even though it’s the same pitch with the same grip. The speed of which you throw it, and the intent… it all changes.”

Laurila: Going back to when you first start throwing a cutter, there was subterfuge involved. When did he first learn that you weren’t just throwing sliders?

Ross: “Probably when he reads this article? I don’t think he ever had an idea. Back then, only the catcher and I knew. Again, I threw a lot of sliders and wanted something that was more like a cutter. It was kind of a happy medium for me.”

Laurila: Were you ever concerned about the two blending into each other?

Ross: “Not really. I’ve thrown bad cutters, and I’ve thrown bad sliders. It doesn’t really matter if I’m throwing both at the same time.”

Laurila: What were you tell your pitching coach when you reported to your first minor-league assignment? Was it “I throw both a cutter and a slider?”

Ross: “Back then they were just trying to get me to establish my fastball. They didn’t really care about the other stuff I had. It was always, ‘We want 65% strikes.’ They were concerned with first-strike percentage. They harped on fastball command, fastball command. Early on, they didn’t really care about the secondary stuff. The priority was heaters.”

Laurila: What about a changeup? Pitchers in the low minors are commonly asked to focus on those, as well.

Ross: “They tried to help me develop a changeup, but it’s a pitch I’ve never had a good feel for. Maybe it’s something I’ll pick up later in life? But yeah, I had stints in Double-A where for the first pitch of every batter I had to throw a changeup. I was bouncing them. I was throwing them to the backstop. It was pretty frustrating. But that’s the minor leagues; it’s about development. You have to do things outside the norm of just having positive results. They’ll have you work on a changeup, a split-finger, or whatever it might be. I ultimately found the most success going with my bread-and-butter, which was a heavy dose of sliders, mixing in cutters here and there.”

Laurila: In terms of your overall repertoire, are the ratios listed on PITCHf/x pretty accurate?

Ross: “Not at all. Especially with my four-seam and my cutters. The only way to know is to look at the catcher’s fingers.”

Laurila: Do you get natural cut on your four-seamer?

Ross: “Yes. I always have.”

Laurila: That being the case, why do you throw a cutter? Is it really all that much different from your four-seamer?

Ross: “The movement is different. There’s the lane from which I throw it; there’s the time that it takes off. My cutter actually comes in straighter than four-seam does at times. My four-seam kind has of a gradual cut, all across, while my cutter will tend to come in straight on, like a four-seam, then cut. So the pitches may look the same on the data, but the timing of when it’s moving is different.”

Laurila: I understand that it’s going to vary game-to-game, but if you throw 100 pitches, what is your slider-cutter-four-seamer breakdown typically going to be?

Ross: “It will vary, but historically I might have been 36-40% sliders. 2015 is when I really reintroduced the cutter, then I missed 2016. In 2017, I was coming back from the injury. Last year was probably a good mix. This year I haven’t thrown a ton of sliders — I’m still trying to find that good feel — but I think when I’m going well it’s probably 33/33/33, even across all.”

Laurila: My standard last question: What haven’t we touched on that we should?

Ross: “Oh, man. Pitch design… I mean, that’s really it. I have a Rapsodo. I’ve worked on understanding the analytics — the spin axis, the spin rate, and all those different factors.”

Laurila: When did you get a Rapsodo, and more importantly, what have you learned from it?

Ross: “This past offseason, and I’ve learned a lot of things that didn’t work. That in itself has taught me a lot. When you try different grips, different arm slots, finger pressures… you can see what does work, and what doesn’t. When you know what definitely doesn’t work, you can discard that and narrow down the focus of what may work in certain scenarios.”

Laurila: What does work for you?

Ross: “With a Rapsodo, it’s easy to find out, and hone in on, what the best… you can checkmark what’s good. Like, ‘Hey, that was my good slider. What was the spin axis on it? What was the spin efficiency?’ For me, it’s understanding, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get that nose down. I’ve got to get that spin on that gyro for my slider to be good.’ You have the information on what the pitch is physically doing.”

Laurila: Seeing the data is one thing. Making it actionable is another.

Ross: “You know what you’re trying to do, so now that you have the data to coincide with that… same with the video on it. You can say, ‘Hey, I saw my hand get to this position. OK, there I am in that slot, with my head on line. That’s when I had 14 spin efficiency, and that’s why the bottom dropped out; it had that gyro spin.’ Or you’ll see that your spin rate was higher, because you got good extension.

“These are all different pieces of the puzzle. They’re the underlying factors behind what you’re doing out out there. But it’s really about developing trust and feel, that confidence in what you’re doing. So I don’t know that I’ve actually changed anything, but I have gained a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. The same pitches I’ve been throwing for a long time, I have a better understanding of.”

We hoped you liked reading Tyson Ross Talks Sliders, Cutters, and Pitch Design by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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