Tyson Ross and Measuring Whiffs

Right now, if you want good news about the San Diego Padres, you look at their pitching staff. San Diego sits 9.5 games out of first place in the NL West but has allowed the third-fewest runs in the National League. Huston Street remains one of the most reliable closers in the game, and one of these years the Padres will probably flip him for a prospect or two. Andrew Cashner–the fireballing, Texas-sized Texan and logical ace of the future–is progressing well in his shoulder rehab: crisis averted, for now. Back on the field, Ian Kennedy blossoms into a starter with more strikeouts than innings pitched, although almost anything will blossom if you move it from Arizona to San Diego. Jesse Hahn was called up in June and has won four of his five starts, and four out of five pitching coaches would recommend his curveball (h/t FanGraphs). The bullpen behind Street is no joke, even though it includes a guy named Kevin Quackenbush.

Good pitchers, all, but no one has pitched more innings for San Diego this season than the titular Tyson Ross (he has seven-plus innings on Kennedy in the same number of starts). And no one has pitched better, either.

The Padres acquired Ross after the 2012 season in a trade with Oakland. San Diego sent away Andy Parrino, who has turned into nothing more than a utility infielder, and Andrew Werner, a pitcher who has yet to pitch for the A’s, and received Ross in return, as well as a minor-league first baseman by the name of A.J. Kirby-Jones. Without a doubt, this is the best trade the Padres have made in the last half-decade; it is in fact their only good trade in that time frame. Ironic indeed that it came at the expense of what is commonly regarded as the savviest front office in the game.

Since moving south, Ross has gone from volatile prospect to steady starter to something more. His whiffs in particular are outstanding. Let me show you.

There are 158 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this season. Of them, Tyson Ross has the sixth-best Swinging Strike% (a measure of total pitches that induce a swing and a miss), at 12.4 percent. Multiply that figure by his total pitches thrown and we can figure out just how many whiffs that is: 224, third in all of baseball behind Masahiro Tanaka (239) and King Felix Hernandez (227). We can also easily figure out just how many swings have been taken against Ross: 783. Now we may construct a new statistic: Whiff/Swing, or the percentage of swings that miss the ball. In our dataset of 158 pitchers, Whiff/Swing ranges from Francisco Liriano at the top (31.4 percent) to Kevin Correia at the bottom (10.4 percent), with an average of 19 percent and a median of 18.7. By this statistic, Ross (28.6 percent) is tied for third in the league with Clayton Kershaw, behind Liriano and Jose Fernandez.

Whiff/Strike measures something slightly different: the percentage of a pitcher’s strikes that come from whiffs. Here the range goes from Liriano (22.5 percent) to Doug Fister (7.4), with an average of 13.6 and a median of 13.4. Ross comes in fifth with 19.9 percent. The usual suspects (Kershaw, Fernandez, Tanaka) are above him.

With all this elite and well-renowned company, Ross ought to be a bigger name in his own right. He’s only 27 and he’s never pitched more than 125 innings in a season, but whiffs are the sexiest part of a pitcher’s game. Alas, San Diego is not a star-making city, and no one operating a national broadcast is wise to linger on Padres highlights for very long. Moreover, Ross will have to demonstrate his extraordinary ability for a bit longer before we the fans let our guards down; too many times has a promising pitcher flamed out on us.

But nothing, other than the long list of arms that have fallen into disrepair, bodes ill for Ross. Not only is he among the best at inducing whiffs, he is fourth (of 158) in groundball percentage as well, behind Dallas Keuchel, Kershaw and Justin Masterson. When you gets whiffs AND groundballs at such extraordinary rates, you don’t need to pitch in one of the best pitcher’s parks to be successful. Ross does, and he’s not eligible to leave until 2018.

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