The All-Star break isn't a lot of fun for obsessively dedicated baseball fans. Four straight days without real baseball leaves us with a big void in our lives. After nearly four straight months of having games every day, it's very difficult to adjust. However, the break provides for an opportunity to take note of what has happened over the first 90-something games of the season.
One pretty incredible thing from the first half is the performance of San Diego Padres pitcher Tyson Ross, who was named to the All-Star game. It wasn't long ago that Ross was an afterthought. Billy Beane sent him to the Padres for two low-level prospects after a poor 2012 season with the Oakland Athletics. The towering right-hander posted a 6.50 ERA with an FIP and xFIP that approached 5. His strikeout rate was a rather pitiful 13.5 percent.
Ross began the 2013 season in the Padres bullpen, but eventually transitioned to the rotation. Overall he threw 125 innings, as he started 16 of the 35 games he appeared in. His ERA dropped by more than three runs and his strikeout rate increased by ten percentage points. The big right-hander's 11.1 percent swinging strike rate and 75.3 percent contact rate were among the best in the major leagues. On pitches outside of the strike zone, batters made contact on just over half of their swings.
This season Ross has been even better. He's replicating his strikeout rate from 2013, and while his 8.1 percent walk rate is a bit high, he's managing a 58 percent ground ball rate, which is an increase of three percentage points from last season and the third highest mark in baseball behind Dallas Keuchel and Justin Masterson.
Meanwhile, Ross has the lowest contact rate in baseball, at 71.4 percent. Masahiro Tanaka is next at 72.1 percent. Only Tanaka has a higher swing and miss rate than Ross' 12.5 percent. The bulk of this work is being done by Ross' slider, which he is throwing on 40 percent of his pitches, up from 32 percent last year and 25 percent with the A's. In two-strike counts, he's thrown the pitch 53 percent of the time, and of those pitches, 25 percent have resulted in strikeouts.
Over the last two seasons, the contact rate on Ross' slider is only 55 percent, and the contact rate on swings at sliders outside the strike zone is a hair below 33 percent. According to Fangraphs Pitch Value leaderboard, only Yu Darvish has a more valuable slider. Because pitches exist in the context of repertories, that leaderboard may be selling Ross and his slider short. Darvish has more pitches than his catcher has fingers, while Ross is basically a two-pitch guy with his fastball and slider.
Most pitchers that rely heavily on a slider have pronounced platoon splits. The slider moves horizontally, breaking in to opposite-handed hitters. However, Ross has had plenty of success with his slider against left-handed bats. His walk rate against left-handed hitters is double what it is against right-handed hitters, but his strikeout rate is almost the same. Against lefties, Ross has garnered 76 swings and misses with his slider. Garrett Richards is the next closest pitcher with 54. His slider also owns the most whiffs against righties, with 114. Clayton Kershaw is next with 98. Only Kershaw, with 47, has more punchouts with his slider than Ross, who has 40.
Tyson Ross has emerged as a very difficult pitcher to hit. In terms of putting the ball in play, nobody has been tougher than Ross. It's anyone's guess as to how long he can stay healthy while he's chucking the slider on four out of every ten pitches, but while he's out there, hitters aren't having fun.
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Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves