The mostly reliable James Shields getting roughed up by the Colorado Rockies on Sunday afternoon is unfortunately part of a growing trend for San Diego Padres pitchers. During the preseason the defense behind the pitching was more of a concern for fans, but Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp have held their own in the outfield. That trio along with the rest of the revamped offense has been a major strength, but surprisingly, the Padres pitching staff has been the major weakness for the team so far in 2015.
Odrisamer Despaigne and Brandon Morrow being the bright spots of the pitching staff so far is telling. Even the intimidating Craig Kimbrel and the rest of the usually rock solid Padres bullpen have looked far from rock solid, much less intimidating, several times over the first month of the new season.
I feel pretty comfortable that James Shields, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy will figure it out. Cashner’s last start against the Astros was another typical quality start at Petco Park for him. Kennedy struggled mightily upon his return from the disabled list against the Dodgers, but like Cashner, Kennedy looked pretty danged good in his most recent start that came against the Rockies. Kimbrel’s move right before the season started probably took a toll on him, and I’m optimistic that as he continues to settle into his new west coast surroundings he’ll return to being the beast he was back east in Atlanta.
I’m not as sure what to think about tonight’s starter, Tyson Ross, however. Arguably the most talented pitcher on the Padres roster, Ross has had a rather disappointing start to 2015, and the Padres need better performances from him. I decided to investigate his advanced stats on baseball-reference.com to analyze what’s causing his decrease in production so far this season.
The owner of a shiny 2.81 ERA and solid 1.211 WHIP in 2014 , Ross has seen his ERA and WHIP balloon to 4.45 and 1.627 to start 2015. His walk rate has nearly doubled, and accounts for a large portion of the increase in his WHIP. Ross has issued 5.9 walks per nine innings in 2015, up from 3.3 per 9 innings in 2014.
Ross is giving up more hits as well, 8.8 per nine innings in 2015 compared to 7.6 per 9 innings in 2014. The increase in hits he’s given up is driven by his high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) against, which is .348, up from his .297 BABIP against in 2014. His also high line drive rate of 29%, up from 22% last season, indicates his high BABIP isn’t because of bad luck. As to be expected, his higher line drive rate has led to a sharp increase in the extra base hits he’s given up. His extra base hit percentage is 7.8% in 2015, up from an excellent 4.9% in 2014.
Also worth noting his that Ross hasn’t forced a double play or infield fly ball yet. That does seem to be a little bit due to bad luck, but considering the hard contact hitters are making against him, maybe it isn’t.
According to fangraphs.com his velocity hasn’t dropped off at all from last season, which is good news for a pitcher like Tyson Ross that relies heavily on the elbow killing slider pitch. More good news for Ross is that he’s striking out 12 batters per 9 innings and generating a swinging strike rate of 24.1%. Both of those numbers are filthy. His swinging strike rate of 24.1% is way above the league average rate of 15.7% and a strong indication that his ability to miss bats hasn’t gone away.
Striking out a batter per inning is something only the elite strikeout starting pitchers do at the major league level, and even high leverage relievers are happy with a K/9 around 12. The problem with racking up so many strikeouts is that it takes a lot pitches. Compounding that problem for Ross is that he isn’t benefiting from quick outs like double plays or infield fly balls, and thus he isn’t reaching the 6th inning on average. His average start in 2014 did last 6 innings, and even though he’s throwing almost the same number of pitches per start (101 to 100), he’s averaging fewer innings pitched per start in 2015.
All of those stats indicate Tyson Ross is still throwing nasty pitches that befuddle hitters. The problem is that his nasty stuff seems to be befuddling him as well. His control and command are both inconsistent. Sometimes he can’t find the strike zone at all, but when he does he’s unhittable a lot of the time. Too often, however, he makes mistakes with his pitches that find the strike zone, and major league hitters thrive on mistakes in the strike zone. The result is a high walk rate, a high strikeout rate, and a high hard contact given up rate, and therefore a ton of pitches and not a ton of innings pitched.
In order for Tyson Ross to reach the goal of 200 innings pitched set for Padres starting rotation by James Shields before the season started, Ross will need to stay healthy and increase the consistency of his control and command. He could maybe even do with reducing his strikeout rate by pitching to contact a little more often, and forcing the occasional double play. Doing so will allow him to pitch longer into the games he starts and reduce the stress on the surprisingly wobbly Padres bullpen. As San Diego seems poised to be right in the middle of tight playoff race all season, Tyson Ross returning to the more polished form he showed in 2014 could be vital to the Padres playoff chances.