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Joe Ross needs a second pitch (and maybe a move to the bullpen)

Examining the decline of his sinker in 2016.

MLB: NLDS-Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers
Washington Nationals pitcher Joe Ross
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The success of the 2017 Washington Nationals does not ride on Joe Ross’ shoulders alone. That’s a burden primarily reserved for the Harpers, Scherzers and Murphys of the world. Ross is the Nats’ fifth starter, and as such, his job is more to not screw things up and less to be a star. Washington would certainly take the latter, but just worry about being a cog in the machine, Joe Ross.

Ross has been, on average, a little better than just a cog in his career to date. In a little over 180 career innings, he’s been worth 2.3 WARP, according to Baseball Prospectus. However, after a nice debut in 2015, his numbers dipped last season — BP’s DRA metric had Ross as nearly a full run worse in 2016.

Generally speaking, Ross’ approach did not change all that much. He was still primarily a fastball/slider guy, with a changeup thrown in, though he did throw the fastball less and the slider more:

Joe Ross pitch usage 2015-16
Brooks Baseball

With the knowledge that Ross declined overall in 2016, that may lead you to the conclusion that throwing his sinker less was a bad idea. Maybe all he needs to do is lay off the offspeed stuff in 2017.

The numbers, however, don’t really support that hypothesis. Take a look at his sinker’s linear weighted value over the past two seasons, courtesy of FanGraphs. If anything, it appears the sinker has declined in value, even as it has appeared less frequently. Pitch values don’t tell the whole story, but as a pitch is used less, we’d expect its linear weighted value to go up, not down, unless there was a real underlying decline in its quality. For Ross, a pitcher that’s really only shown himself to be comfortable with two pitches, losing one of them is very bad news.

First, let’s get to those numbers and shown precisely how much less trouble hitters were having with that sinker in 2016:

Joe Ross sinker results 2015-16

2015 0.258 0.379 0.121 0.264 88.1
2016 0.348 0.484 0.136 0.405 91.5
Diff. 0.090 0.105 0.015 0.141 3.4

It’s not hard to tell just by looking at that table that Ross’ sinker suffered greatly as compared to 2015. In fact, no pitcher who had at least 50 sinkers put into play in both 2015 and 2016 saw their average exit velocity increase by more:

Sinker EV differences 2015-16

Name 2015 Exit Velo 2016 Exit Velo 2016 Diff
Name 2015 Exit Velo 2016 Exit Velo 2016 Diff
Joe Ross 88.1 91.5 3.4
Noah Syndergaard 86.9 90.1 3.2
Mike Pelfrey 88.3 90.7 2.4
Jimmy Nelson 86.9 89.3 2.4
Chris Rusin 89.5 91.5 2
Jake Arrieta 85.7 87.5 1.8
Hector Santiago 90.9 92.5 1.6
Tony Watson 87 88.2 1.2
Kendall Graveman 91.3 91.4 0.1
Jeanmar Gomez 88.5 88.6 0.1
Edinson Volquez 91.3 91.3 0
Hisashi Iwakuma 92.2 92.1 -0.1
Corey Kluber 91.2 90.9 -0.3
Felix Hernandez 90.1 89.6 -0.5
Mike Leake 92.2 91.6 -0.6
Blake Treinen 88.2 87.2 -1
Kyle Hendricks 91.1 89.8 -1.3
Raisel Iglesias 88.5 87.2 -1.3
CC Sabathia 89.1 87.6 -1.5
Jeurys Familia 88.4 86.5 -1.9
Masahiro Tanaka 93.6 91.6 -2
Jon Lester 94.1 90.5 -3.6
Scott Feldman 91.4 86.3 -5.1

Really, only Noah Syndergaard had a comparable dropoff with his sinker, and Thor obviously has the type of deep repertoire and otherworldly stuff that Ross can’t claim. Actually, this is another good example of what separates the great pitchers from the average ones. Syndergaard can compensate for one of his pitches regressing because he has so many other weapons to fall back on. A guy like Ross is not so fortunate — one slip and he’s a much different pitcher.

So we know the results: Ross’ sinker was much worse in 2016 than the year before. But what was the cause of those results? Let’s see if we can find out.

The first thing we’ll look at is velocity:

Joe Ross sinker velocity 2015-16
Brooks Baseball

*Ignore July 2016 above. Ross made one start on July 2 and then went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation until mid-September.

Overall, Ross did throw his sinker a bit softer in 2016 (93.46 MPH) than 2015 (93.73), but that .27 MPH difference is quite small. It was still harder than the average sinker, so this wasn’t some Weaverian dropoff. A small drop off is still a dropoff, however, so let’s keep that in our back pocket. It may not have been the root cause, but we shouldn’t ignore it either.

Much like velocity, a lot of other important facts either stayed largely the same or took a small dip. Ross’ release point on his sinker didn’t change much. His spin rate did increase a bit, which isn’t good for sinkers, but not so much as to make a huge difference.

So it has to be location. In 2016, Ross threw his sinker for a strike about 26.3 percent of the time, up from 22.6 percent in 2015. That doesn’t necessarily signal better command, however. We know that not all strikes are quality strikes. And I think that, more than anything, was the problem with Ross’ sinker in 2016: he couldn’t locate it quite as precisely.

As further proof, here are the heatmaps of Ross’ sinker usage from 2015 (left) and 2016 (right) side by side:

Joe Ross sinkers 2015 and 2016
Baseball Savant

Again, like his velocity or his spin rate, this is another, small subtle, shift, but when these small regressions pile up, they can turn into a big problem.

In 2015, Ross worked up and out of the zone with his sinker. In 2016, that usage was concentrated closer to the middle of the zone. After watching just so many Joe Ross videos, I can’t say this was the result of some concentrated effort to work lower in the zone. He just missed spot a lot.

Here are just a few examples:

Ross is ahead in the count in all three videos. It’s perfectly fine if he misses out of the zone. But each time, Wilson Ramos calls for the sinker low and inside only to watch Ross leave the ball out over plate where the batter can drive it.

This is a good example of the difference between command and control. Ross has the latter — his pitches found the strike zone 44.7 percent of the time in 2016, almost exactly league-average — but he lacks the former. He’s good enough to find the zone, but not good enough to place the ball precisely where he wants within it.

That’s not unusual, of course. Command is typically the last skill a pitcher acquires, if they ever get it. This will be just Ross’ age-24 season, however, so he has plenty of time to improve in that area. The Nationals certainly hope that he will, and do so quickly.

Still, it’s a shame to see Ross’ sinker regress so heavily after flashing above-average in 2015, if for no other reason than the fact that his slider is already a go-to pitch. In fact, only three starters in baseball (min. 50 innings pitched) threw their slider more often than Ross in 2016, and batters whiffed on nearly a quarter of those pitches.

Considering his fairly bland and ineffective (92.2 MPH average exit velocity) changeup, that means Ross is down to just one pitch he can rely on in any count. That’s almost never a successful recipe for a quality starter, unless you’re a knuckleballer.

The Nats certainly want to keep him in that role for the time being, and a league-average starter — as Ross has shown flashes of being — is a really nice asset to have as a fifth starter. Especially considering the fact they just traded away some high upside starting pitching prospects, that is nearly the ideal scenario for Washington.

Still, looking at Ross’ profile — limited arsenal, suspect command, good velocity, reliable out pitch — and examining where he struggles and succeeds, it’s very tempting to conclude that the Nationals should move him to the bullpen.

In shorter stints he could throw that slider even more, and perhaps he’d earn a couple extra ticks on his fastball since he wouldn’t have to preserve energy. I’m not sure it’s good for the health of his arm, but it wouldn’t be hard to see him become a Ken Giles-style reliever in that role.

That’s probably still a ways off, however, as even a bad starter is more valuable than almost every reliever, and the Nationals do need someone to fill in the back end of their rotation. They’d like for that person to be Joe Ross. But without a reliable second pitch, and better command, Ross might not be able to fit that role.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.