Washington Nationals: What has plagued Joe Ross thus far?

Apr 30, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Joe Ross (41) pitches against the New York Mets at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Joe Ross (41) pitches against the New York Mets at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /
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It’s been a rough season so far for Washington Nationals starter Joe Ross, but what have been the reasons why he has struggled so much? 

In 2.5 seasons with the Washington Nationals, Joe Ross has been one of the most interesting, yet enigmatic players on the team.

He put together two solid (albeit unspectacular) seasons from 2015-16, posting a 3.52 ERA and a 3.46 FIP over 181.2 innings. Most teams that have a 24-year-old pitcher with that kind of track record would give him the keys to the kingdom.

Not the Nats. No one seemed to care, even though Ross was a top-100 prospect who made his debut at age 22. Maybe its hard to get excited about anyone as an organization when you have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, but Ross actually had a better ERA over those two seasons than Strasburg.

This year though, Ross has been a train wreck. He is currently rocking an unsightly 5.98 ERA after nine starts, allowing five or more earned runs in over half of those outings.

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But Joe Ross-the-enigma does not stop there – he is posting career-bests in both his strikeout and walk rates (8.52 K/9 and a 1.99 BB/9). Those are typically two indicators of a pitcher who is headed in the right direction.

Ross is also using his arsenal of pitches in the same manner as previous seasons. His fastball-slider-changeup percentages have all stayed fairly steady from 2015-17.

Velocity

It looks as if the big issue is velocity. According to Fangraphs, Ross averaged 93.3 miles-per-hour on his sinker in 2015. That dipped a bit last year (probably due to his shoulder injury), but has nose-dived all the way to 91.7 mph in 2017.

Strangely, he has coupled that with an increase in velocity on his slider this season (he is up from 83.7 mph to 85.0 mph). Ross was able to keep hitters off balance with a 10 mph difference between his sinker and slider in past years. Now, it is just a six mph difference, which allows hitters to fight off pitches and prolong at-bats until they get a pitch to their liking (.736 OPS off his slider is about 300 points higher than in his first two years).

Location

Ross has had trouble locating his pitches. He has been all over the place with his sinker this season, compared to past years where he consistently pounded the zone. Opposing teams own a whopping 1.027 OPS against that sinker.

In general, he has elevated more of his pitches this season. Ross came into the league as a ground ball pitcher – in 2015, nearly 50 percent of his batted balls stayed on the ground. This season, that is down to 38 percent, while his fly ball number has jumped from 33.8 percent to 38 percent.

Diminished velocity, inconsistent location, and elevated pitches are not a recipe for success – which is why Ross sports a 1.99 HR/9 rate, good for seventh-worst among NL pitchers with at least 40 innings thrown.

Confidence

Ross is still just 24, and has enough talent to figure things out. If anything, it could simply be a confidence issue for Ross. He was banished to Class-AAA to start the season; he might feel like he has something more to prove, causing him to overthrow and miss his spots. I understand there was a scheduling quirk to start the year that meant a fifth starter was not needed for awhile.

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Washington has been able to build a double-digit lead in the division, giving them some leeway to work through Ross’ (and Tanner Roark’s) struggles. But the time is now for Ross to get it together. If he puts up a few more clunkers, general Mike Rizzo might find himself in the market for more than just a reliever as the Nationals push for their first series win in the postseason in team history.