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November 21, 2012

Punk Hits

Why Tyson Ross Went South

by Ian Miller

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The mind is a terrible thing, both to waste, and just in general. So often the brain fails us utterly: things like deja vu, phantom limbs, and confirmation bias make me wonder why I have one at all.

Confirmation bias makes it especially difficult when it comes to evaluating baseball players. Take Tyson Ross (please!). I watched him dominate at UC Berkeley for two seasons. His sophomore year was especially impressive: look past the 6-6 record and you’ll see he put up a 2.49 ERA and a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Dude was GOOD.         

Ross has always looked good in a uniform. “Long-levered,” as we called him in the 2012 Annual, doesn’t begin to describe him: His 6’ 6”, 230-pound frame appears to be made up solely of arms and legs. He’s on the lanky side, but put him next to Chris Sale and he looks like Giancarlo Stanton. He’s got all the physical tools to be a prototypical power pitcher.

Going into the 2008 college baseball season, Tyson Ross looked like a no-brainer first-round pick. He had size, velocity, and unimpeachable make-up. He also had an impressive repertoire: low-to-mid 90s fastball, heavy sinker, wipeout slider, and a changeup that was a work in progress. Yeah, his mechanics were a little messy, but that stuff can be smoothed out. (Foreshadowing.)

Instead, it all started to come apart. His K/BB fell to 2:1 and his ERA ballooned accordingly, to 4.25. A strained lat limited him to just 78 innings, compared with 118 the previous year. But which came first, the injury or the ineffectiveness? (This chicken-or-egg question has become a familiar refrain when discussing Tyson Ross.)

As you no doubt know, last week the A’s shipped Tyson Ross and first baseman A.J. Kirby-Jones to the Padres for Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner. Given the amount of young pitching talent Oakland has, this move doesn’t come as a complete shock. However, this reporter admits being a little surprised that Beane and co. would sell low on a guy like Ross, who can look maddeningly good in short spurts. Beane’s hand may have been forced by 40-man roster considerations; if the alternative was to leave Ross unprotected, then Oakland did well to get anything back at all.

I still think Tyson Ross can be an effective big-league pitcher. I’ve seen him pitch effectively, both in college and at the big-league level. He has the arsenal. He looks like pitchers are supposed to look, and everyone raves about his make-up and work ethic. But I can’t trust my own brain because of confirmation bias! Stupid brain! /Hits self in head repeatedly with a Vans sneaker, Spicoli-style.

But I tricked my faulty brain by asking other people with different, decidedly better brains, for their opinions: BP pitching mechanics guru, Doug Thorburn, and a couple of A’s experts, our own Jason Wojciechowski and Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse.

I asked them why someone who can—and should—be good is often so very, very bad. “Command and control” is the simple answer. In 2012, Ross walked 37 and struck out 46 while allowing 96 base hits. If you’ll allow me to cite WHIP, I’ll tell you that Tyson’s was north of 1.8. It’s hard to be successful when you’re allowing nearly two baserunners an inning.

Wojciechowski and Thorburn agree that his mechanics are at the root of his struggles.

“He seems to have no idea where his arm is going, and thus he has no idea where the ball is going,” Wojciechowski said. “He actually threw strikes this year, but in my opinion, the massive BABIP [.360!] was not luck so much as a failure to throw quality strikes. He's just kind of flinging the ball toward the zone and hoping there's enough movement on the pitch that the hitter can't make solid contact.”

Thorburn elaborated, pointing out some of the many issues with Ross’ delivery.

“He has zero momentum and a short stride, which negates the positive aspects of size. Even the downhill plane crowd is dissatisfied because Ross throws with a low arm slot. His timing is very inconsistent, which is maddening considering the relative simplicity (of his delivery).”

Lockard agrees that Ross’ mechanics are an issue, but isn’t sure that altering them is the answer. “In my opinion, Tyson's struggles have stemmed mostly from health issues but also from trying to change who he is as a pitcher. He may always be injury-prone with his mechanics, but he is a better pitcher with that motion.”

Thorburn, on the other hand, thinks some “major adjustments” are in order. “Opposing hitters get a long look at the baseball because of his shallow release, but if he can achieve more depth, and perhaps mix in his breaking ball more often, then he could see a pleasant domino effect on his stat line. Further development of his change-up could also make a big difference.” He also points out that Ross didn’t make those adjustments in his time with Oakland, an organization that Thorburn says “appreciates such elements as athletic balance, momentum, and especially timing.”

It seems unlikely that Ross would simply refuse to make those adjustments, especially given what we know of him as an “off the charts” make-up guy. That suggests that he can’t make them—or at least can’t make them yet. With his existing mechanics, his ceiling is almost certainly that of a reliever. (Avoid injury; throw 200 innings a year; get guys out at a decent clip. Pick any two.)

And it’s still not a given that Tyson Ross is a big-league pitcher at all. At 25, his injury history is already extensive, and he hasn’t been able to consistently get big-league hitters out.

But there’s still a chance that Ross can not just stick in the bigs, but dominate. We’ve seen flashes of it: when he can command his fastball and sinker, he induces lots of weak grounders, and his slider can be devastating. If he can stay healthy, if he makes a few basic mechanical adjustments, if some stuff breaks his way, Ross just might make it.

Of course, that’s probably just the confirmation bias talking.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Oakland A's,  Tyson Ross,  Andy Parrino

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