Stephen Strasburg was reinstated to the Washington Nationals’ active roster this afternoon after three weeks on the disabled list with a strained trapezius muscle. That means 22-year-old prospect Joe Ross is ticketed for Triple-A Syracuse. Ross was extremely impressive in his brief three-start call-up, pitching to a 2-1 record with a 2.66 ERA. For a rookie experiencing his first taste of the Major Leagues, the most impressive aspect of Ross’s performance was his command and poise on the mound. In 20 innings, Ross struck out 23, but walked only two.
That’s right, a 22-year-old rookie walked only two batters in the first 20 innings of his career.
Pitchers of Ross’ type typically struggle with command early on when given their first taste of baseball’s highest level. The Nationals’ neighbor to the North, the Baltimore Orioles, are still waiting on top prospect Kevin Gausman to exhibit this type of consistent command. When watching Ross pitch in his first three starts, it was evident that he oozed confidence and trusted his pitches. He relied primarily on his heavy, sinking fastball, which reached the mid-to-upper nineties and his slider. The change-up that he has been working on this season was used more as a complimentary pitch. The change-up will need work, however, as opponents batted .500 against it.
Ross has a very mature approach to pitching, perhaps influenced by the fact that his older brother, Tyson Ross has helped guide him through the process. Early on in the count, he fills up the strike zone with his fastball. To say he is pitching to contact is a stretch, because he has better velocity than the average sinker-baller. The sinking action on his fastball created groundballs at a 60% clip. His slider was unhittable at times, and accounted for 14 of his 23 strikeouts. Opponents batted just .088 against the slider. Moving forward, it appears Ross’ slider will be an effective strikeout pitch to finish hitters off, something many “pitch-to-contact” types like Rick Porcello or Mark Buehrle lack.
The trip to Syracuse should not be seen as a demotion for Joe Ross. The return of Strasburg necessitates him vacating a spot on the 25-man roster for a brief time. Should Doug Fister or Gio Gonzalez continue to struggle this season, Ross appears likely to receive a shot at the job. He will also likely be the first option in place whenever a spot start is needed. The Nationals will have some decisions to make this offseason, with the impending free agency of Jordan Zimmermann. Should the team decide not to pony up the cash to secure a long-term deal for Zimmermann, Ross will begin the season in the starting rotation next year. His command and the strikeout potential of his slider also make him a very attractive option out of the bullpen as the Nationals attempt to fend off the pesky New York Mets for a playoff spot. There is no question the Nationals will find a way to use Ross when the rosters expand to 40 men, but there is a very good chance he returns to Washington before then.
With three starters failing to live up to their lofty preseason billing — Strasburg, Fister, and Gonzalez — the Nationals may be forced to pull the plug on one. In that case, Joe Ross gave them a very good look at what he can offer the club in his brief three-outing stint. Trea Turner was viewed by many to be the centerpiece in the Nationals’ haul in the Wil Myers–Steven Souza swap, but based on the early returns, the righty will prove to give Turner a run for his money. He is ready for the big leagues, and cannot be kept down in the minors much longer.