Ross developing arsenal

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Left-hander Robbie Ross recently finished off a solid season between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco, posting a 2.34 earned-run average in 161.1 innings. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the prospect to discuss his development and his lights-out postseason start.

As pitching prospects, Robbie Ross and Joe Wieland have followed relatively similar career paths. Both hurlers began last season at Single-A Hickory and earned a promotion to High-A Bakersfield. The duo had success in Hickory but scuffled a bit in Bakersfield.

Ross and Wieland opened the 2011 campaign at High-A Myrtle Beach, and they developed into two of the Carolina League's most dominant pitchers. The two learned the value of within-the-zone fastball command, and their numbers too off.

Now, Ross and Wieland are both having success in Double-A––with different organizations. While Ross is still with the Rangers, Wieland was sent to San Diego in the Mike Adams deal at this year's trade deadline.

As fate would have it, the pair––who consider themselves to be best friends––pitched against each other in game one of the Texas League's South Division Championship Series earlier this month. They were both at their best, combining to surrender a single run on three hits in 13 innings.

Wieland eventually earned the victory, as he hurled seven shutout frames while throwing only 82 pitches. He yielded two hits, walked one, and struck out eight. The right-hander's stuff has continued to progress since joining San Antonio. Wieland's fastball sat in the 91-94 mph range, and he topped out at 95 a handful of times. His 82-85 mph slider––which was added in spring training while working with Mike Maddux and Danny Clark this past March––was a legitimate swing-and-miss offering to complement his 78-81 mph curveball.

Although Ross suffered the loss, his performance and stuff practically matched Wieland. Ross surrendered only one run on one hit in six innings. He walked four and fanned a career-best 12 batters.

Ross, a 22-year-old southpaw, stifled the strong Missions offense with a three-pitch mix––his fastball, slider, and changeup. He generally threw his fastball at 90-92 mph, bumping up to 93 on occasion. As Ross explains in the following interview, he began throwing his slider harder late in the season––into the 85-87 mph range––and it became more of a swing-and-miss pitch. He also mixed in far more changeups than usual.

The 5-foot-11 prospect did an excellent job of mixing and locating all three offerings. He worked both sides of the plate and often changed eye levels with his fastball, helping set up his secondary stuff. Ross also induces ground balls and swinging strikes with the sneaky life on his fastball. His low-90s heater often has excellent late cutting action that hitters have trouble squaring up.

Entering the season, Ross' durability among his primary question marks. While there is little doubt about his pure talent, he certainly isn't the tallest of hurlers and loses velocity late in outings at times. The Kentucky native did see a drop in velocity around the 90-pitch range in the start against San Antonio––he began working at 89-90 and reached back for 91 in the sixth inning. But he also led the Rangers' system with 161.1 regular-season innings in 2011, and he consistently worked deep into games.

Ross finished his '11 campaign on a positive note with the outing in San Antonio. On the whole, he made 27 appearances (26 starts) and posted a 2.34 earned-run average. In those 161.1 innings, he allowed just 135 hits, walked 33, and struck out 134. He also induced nearly 1.5 groundouts per flyout while yielding only six home runs.

Ross continued to pitch well in Frisco. Counting the playoff appearance, he posted the following line for the RoughRiders––44 ip, 34 h, 12 er, 9 bb, 48 k.

The left-hander is putting himself in a position to potentially compete for a spot on the Rangers' pitching staff at some point in 2012. His success this past season certainly strengthens the argument that he can remain a starting pitcher at the upper levels. He still must continue to prove he can remain strong and develop the changeup as a third pitch.

But even if Ross ultimately moves to the bullpen, the power fastball-slider combination could be lethal on major league left-handed hitters. Between High-A and Double-A this season, fellow southpaws posted a punchless .167/.243/.210 slash line against him with a 30.5 percent strikeout rate.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with Ross after the postseason start in San Antonio. He discussed the game, his overall season, and the potential introduction of a new pitch––a curveball––to start the 2012 campaign.

Jason Cole: I know you are probably disappointed with the end result here, but give me your thoughts on your start tonight.

Robbie Ross: I felt good. I tried to pound the zone as much as I could. The four walks––it kind of shows that I was little around the zone, I guess you could say. But they came out swinging tonight. I was just like, ‘Alright, well I might as well try to throw some quality pitches and see what happens.'

It felt good. I just tried to battle. I knew that we would start hitting Joe––hopefully. I was sitting there thinking that we have been hot lately. We were on a five-game winning streak awhile ago. I was thinking that any time we were going to start hitting Joe, and I was hoping that I could keep us in the game as long as I can. It ended up not happening tonight, but that's part of baseball. It happens sometimes.

Cole: I know you and Wieland are very good friends and had pretty much followed the same career and promotion path before the trade. When you were warming up in the outfield and bullpen, did you kind of look across and see him?

Ross: He threw a ball up into the stands. When he was throwing and getting stretched out a little bit, he threw one into the stands and I yelled out at him. I was just like, ‘Nice throw.' Then he looked over and I smiled at him and he smiled back. It was fun because I was trying to get him to look over at me. When he was warming up, I was doing everything he was doing. Just as a joke––just messing with him. I think he may have seen it, but I was finally like, ‘I better stop and get serious.'

This is just a great situation we're both in. We're both best buddies and we're having a good time out here. It's the end of the season. We're trying to work for this ring and trying to get this title. But at the same time, it's still a game and we both want to have fun out there. We just battle. It was great.

Cole: I'm guessing that you guys are both happy that it was at least a low-scoring pitchers' duel.

Ross: Yeah, that was great. I'm sure Joe is just as excited for me as I am for him. He went seven innings with eight K's, one walk, and two hits. He dominated. He just did well. And that happens sometimes.

Sometimes it gets to being a pitchers' duel, and whoever ends up not making mistakes ends up winning. That's what happened tonight. He ended up not walking as many guys as I did, and that one hit is costly sometimes. It happened. It's part of baseball.

Cole: You got to make a start with Frisco in the Texas League playoffs last season after pitching the entire regular season in Low- and High-A. What is the difference for you between pitching in the playoffs then and now?

Ross: The difference now is that I've gotten to work with (Frisco pitching coach) Jeff Andrews. I got to understand these Double-A hitters and things like that. It was great, just getting the opportunity to work with him for however many innings I got to throw before these playoff games. I got to work on my changeup, my slider, and all the offspeed stuff. The thing that I've noticed a lot more than last year was that I've finally started to work my fastball––just hitting both sides of the plate.

It's really a blessing to get the opportunity to be out here and throw this game against a good pitcher like Joe and obviously a team like San Antonio. But at the same time, it's great because you've got guys behind you that can hit. You've got guys in the infield and outfield making plays. You've got catchers who make plays for you.

Just things like that––the whole difference is that this year I came up here and I was a lot more comfortable with the people behind me. I knew who they were, and I knew what was going on. Last year, it felt like I was thrown into the fire and I was just in it. I only knew like four or five guys, and I was the young guy. I wasn't really there long enough to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I deserve to be with this team.' I feel like getting to be with this team has been great, because they've all been very welcoming and just very open.

Cole: The Carolina League obviously isn't the most hitter-friendly place. You only gave up one home run in all your time there, and then you gave up one in each of your first five Double-A starts. Do you feel that kind of highlights the differences in the leagues?

Ross: Yeah, it does. It's funny. I was telling Jeff, ‘Man, I'm not used to giving up these home runs all the time. It's getting on my nerves.' Then he was like, ‘Let me tell you something. You're going to have a million more of those. There's going to be so many more that you don't worry about it. You'll get out of it.' He just said, ‘If you're going to throw strikes, then more than likely you're going to give up home runs. And if you're going to throw the fastball a lot, you're going to give up home runs.' Things like that.

It was to a point where it was really frustrating to me. But then it started being solo home runs, and it was like, ‘This isn't such a big deal.' But at the same time, I started to work a little different. I was getting lazy in the later innings, thinking that I'll just coast in there instead of working on it actually being a quality pitch. That was something we had really worked on for the past two games. It has been good.

Cole: I talked about this with Wieland before the trade. He spoke about how the stint in Bakersfield last season taught him the value of within-the-zone fastball command. Do you feel that was the same with you?

Ross: Heck yeah. Oh yeah. We both went through that. We both struggled in Bakersfield, and we started to figure it out a little bit. But at the same time, once we got to Myrtle Beach, it was like, ‘Holy cow, throw your fastball. Work the sides of the plate.' I feel like that was the biggest thing for us––going to Bakersfield. You have to pitch with different stuff, but once you went to Myrtle Beach it was about working your fastball on both sides of the plate and getting through. And that's what everyone wants to learn––to be able to command your fastball.

Me and Joe both were just working on that as hard as we could. This year was finally something to where we finally got it under control. We started working really hard on it, and I feel like that is what has really gotten him successful. And at the same time, it has helped me a lot––just being able to understand that I've got to pitch to both sides of the plate with my fastball. If I can do that, then I can work on other things. It has been good.

Cole: Your fastball has a lot of natural cutting action at times. Is that ever difficult to command or control?

Ross: Sometimes. When I really need to get an away pitch––like on a lefty––that's the toughest part, to try and keep it in there. I feel like that is kind of what happened tonight. I was cutting across a little bit. It wasn't too much, but it was enough to where it was a ball.

Depending on the night, sometimes I get late in the game and I come across a little more. But at the same time, I like to have the movement. Most of the time, they're swinging at it and chasing it.

Cole: The changeup has obviously been a big focus for you this season. About how many times did you throw it tonight?

Ross: Today I threw it––I had to have thrown it at least 20 times tonight. I threw it a lot tonight. My fastball wasn't as hard as usual or whatever. But I finally started to throw my changeup like I wanted to.

Jeff and me have been working on it like crazy. We've been trying to find that grip, because I've been cutting it so much. In the last bullpen I threw, he was like, ‘Just spread your fingers and throw this thing.' I started throwing it and it was there.

I was like, ‘Finally. Something I can work on that is not cutting like that.' Because I throw my slider, and it goes across. I throw my fastball, and it goes across. And my changeup started going across. I need to get the actual natural changeup. So finally me and Jeff just worked on it, and it finally started to get back to normal.

Cole: Had you ever thrown a changeup before where it didn't have that cut?

Ross: Yeah, I did. But it was getting more of a split-finger look to it instead of that natural changeup that looks like a fastball. So he was saying––I also had that problem when I was talking to (Myrtle Beach pitching coach) Brad Holman. He was like, ‘You need to get this (fading) action and you don't want that (splitter) action. You can get that (splitter) action. That's fine. But that's not your changeup.' So that's what happens.

I got that split-finger look more than a changeup look. So we started working on throwing it and getting it to fade like that. It started working today. I just had to run with it. I might as well throw it, because they were chasing it. When they knew I probably wasn't going to throw a fastball in the zone, I thought that I should try to throw a few changeups and maybe get some rollover ground balls.

Cole: Your slider was reaching into the 85-87 mph range with some consistency tonight. Are you throwing it a little harder than you have in the past?

Ross: Yeah, lately I have. I think it's just later in the season. I'm starting to throw it more like a fastball, but I'm not really tweaking it as much. That's why I'm getting so much more speed––not tweaking it. Right now it's just a little bit harder.

Cole: How do you like the harder version? It seems like it was pretty effective tonight.

Ross: I like throwing it like that. It's almost like a cutter, pretty much––like a hard cutter. But the thing is that I throw a fastball that's hard and then a slider that's hard. That's why I've been working on my changeup so much––just to get something slower. We've also been working on a curveball a little bit. That has been nice. We're just trying to get something slower. My slider used to be slower in the earlier parts of the season.

Cole: You didn't throw any curveballs tonight, did you?

Ross: I did not.

Cole: Have you brought it into game action at all yet?

Ross: I haven't. I've just been trying to work on it in the bullpens. I'll throw maybe 10 pitches of curveballs––just spike curveballs. I'll flip it in there just to get the feel of it, and then next year I'll maybe work it in.

Cole: When did you start toying with the curve?

Ross: Right when I got here. Jeff asked me if I wanted to try it. And I was like, ‘Yes. I tried this last offseason and couldn't really do it myself, so maybe you could give me a little help.'

We started working with it, and he told me to try spiking it with my nail. It started working. That's what Joe throws, actually. Joe throws a spike curveball with his pointer finger. I told him I was trying to do it also.

Cole: It's been a long season, and I'm pretty sure that you're at the top of the organization in innings pitched. Are you surprised you've gone deep into games so often this year?

Ross: Yeah, but at the same time, this year has been different. I've thrown a lot more innings than I did last year. I think it's just the fact that I wasn't trying so much to get strikeouts all the time. It was more like, ‘How can I get myself all the way to the last inning?' It's trying to battle the best I can. Knowing that I have an outfield, an infield, and a team that is going to hit for me, why not just try to throw strikes and eat some innings?

That was pretty much it this year. Last year, it was more along the lines of me thinking, ‘I want to get some strikeouts, but I don't want to walk a guy here and there.' It was really tense. This year was more free and easy––just going out there and throwing it. The outcome is the outcome, but I just want to do the best I can with my stuff.

Cole: What's one thing that you feel you can be better at next season?

Ross: I think this year was a good season for me weight-wise. I worked on my weight in the offseason last year. I want to be able to tone myself a little more physically.

And I also want to be able to work on something that's a little slower. I want to work on my slider, changeup and fastball again. But I want to work on that spike curveball––just to have something slow that I can flip in there. Just to let them see something slower that gets them off-balance.

I want something to where they're not always sitting fastball. Because if they're sitting fastball, they can also swing and hit my slider because it's almost as hard as my fastball. So just being able to do something where it's a little slower. That would be something big.

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