Ross wants shot at starting role

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Even though Robbie Ross likely profiles in a relief role long-term, he may be the Texas Rangers' best temporary option for no. 5 starter. Lone Star Dugout caught up with Ross to get his thoughts on the development of his arsenal and competing for a rotation job.

As Robbie Ross ascended through the Texas Rangers' minor league ranks between 2009 and 2011, there was never much doubt he'd become a major league-quality arm. The question was whether or not he could stick in a starting rotation.

Ross is now coming off a dominant rookie campaign out of the Rangers' bullpen, and that question still remains.

Although the 5-foot-11 Ross is on the short side for a potential starting pitcher, the primary concern has always been his arsenal. The southpaw features two legitimate plus pitches in his ultra-lively 88-92 mph fastball (up to 93-94 on occasion) and sharp slider. His tendency to cut everything he throws is great for the late movement on his fastball––and part of his success in the bullpen last year––but not so much for the development of a changeup. Even as a starting pitcher in the minors, Ross had problems cutting his change––instead of getting the desired fading action away from right-handed hitters.

The two pitches Ross has at his utility have always been very similar. His fastball and slider clock in the same approximate velocity range, and they play off the same plane out of his hand. Throwing exclusively fastballs and sliders out of the ‘pen in 2012, Ross had an average fastball velo of 91.8 mph with 85.3 on the slider. In a vacuum, having your best two pitches work off the same plane is a good quality. But a starting pitcher needs something to mix it up and give hitters different looks for multiple at-bats in a game. Something like a curveball or a changeup––two pitches Ross is working on this spring––would help. Both give hitters lower velocity to be aware of, and the curveball alters the hitters' eye level with a different plane.

All of those aspects––velocity, plane, late movement, and plus command to both sides of the plate––played in Ross' favor out of the Rangers' bullpen last season, when he posted a 2.22 ERA over 65 innings. While he doesn't overpower hitters, they never seemed to be on his fastball-slider mix. The late life on his fastball helped him induce more than two groundouts per airout.

But Ross was a starting pitcher throughout his minor league career, and he wants a chance to prove himself as a starter at the highest level, as he explains in the following interview. He just might get that opportunity this spring, even if it's for only a handful of starts.

With veteran Colby Lewis missing at least a month and change due to injury, the Rangers entered camp this year searching for a temporary fifth starter. The hole hasn't been filled on the open market––yet, at least. The Rangers are likely still searching for options. Derek Lowe, who signed a minor league deal last week, is likely to make the team as a long reliever.

Top pitching prospect Martin Perez appeared to be the favorite coming into camp, and he looked to be grabbing the opportunity by the horns early on. But his impressive early-spring showing was quickly derailed by an injury that will keep him sidelined for more than a month.

Former Cardinals right-hander Kyle McClellan, another rotation candidate, went down on Sunday with a strained right lat muscle. It's an injury that will keep him out for approximately three-to-four weeks, and it takes yet another no. 5 frontrunner out of the mix.

That leaves the in-house competition between prospects Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch and non-roster invitee Randy Wells. Lefty reliever Michael Kirkman is also seeing his innings stretched out recently.

Though Tepesch has impressed in camp, he has just limited experience in Double-A. Grimm saw big league action in 2012 but has struggled to find his within-the-zone command thus far. Wells, coming off injury, has a shot but will most likely open the year in Triple-A Round Rock.

That just might make Ross the favorite by default, even if it isn't the Rangers' ideal option. The club's front office seems to view Ross as a reliever who was perfect for the role he pitched in last season. There's plenty of reason to believe that, but there also may not be a better option for a four- or five-start stint.

In all reality, Ross probably doesn't have the arsenal to log a full season as a major league starting pitcher. He's a fairly unique pitcher, but hitters may have more success as they see him three or four times per game or in a second or third start. But Ross throws strikes, and he does so with enough stuff that he should be able to hold his own in a short temporary stint.

Jason Cole: Coming into spring training this year, there was lots of uncertainty regarding the back end of the Rangers' starting rotation. Even with Derek Lowe coming in now, that's even more true following the Martin Perez injury. Knowing all this, what was your mindset coming into camp?

Robbie Ross: I just came in like last year––trying to make the team. Last year, it was more along the lines of just seeing what it was going to be like, and I was going to be a starter. So I kind of have the same mindset right now because they've kind of stretched me out. I think it's just focusing on the fact of getting ready and trying to get my arm strong.

Cole: You threw four innings of one-run ball against the Cubs on March 6. How did you feel about the outing?

Ross: I feel like it was good––except for that first inning. I'm trying to work on some stuff here and there, and it's frustrating when it doesn't work out sometimes. You give up a home run like that, and you have stuff that doesn't go your way. It happens. But overall it felt great.

Cole: What are some of those things that you're working on right now?

Ross: Just working with the changeup more, working with the curveball, commanding my fastball to both sides of the plate––just everything. That's a big thing. If I'm being stretched out, I'm going to have to have all of those pitches. It's not just a deal where I can get away with two pitches now. I'm kind of honing in on all of them.

Cole: You threw quite a few changeups in that outing against the Cubs. Against the last hitter you faced in the fourth, you threw three changeups in a row I think.

Ross: Yeah, I think it was four in a row.

Cole: Have you ever done that in your life?

Ross: I've done two, but not four. Actually, I've done three, but not four. It was kind of nice.

Cole: Did you know you wanted to do that at some point in the game?

Ross: Yeah. I wanted to just feel it. I threw the first one, and it was okay. A.J. (Pierzynski) called it again, and I wanted to throw it again. And then I threw it, and then he went back to it again. I was like, ‘Why not? I'm trying to work on it. Why not throw it?' So I threw it again.

And then he called it one more time and I was like, ‘Not a bad idea.' It felt good. I got a swing and miss on it. I was just like, ‘Wow. Why not?' I guess that's the biggest thing––just trying to feel it. So it was kind of nice to just consecutively throw it like that. It was great.

Cole: In the past, cutting everything has been a big strength for you––especially with your fastball. But with the changeup, where you want to get that armside life instead of the cut, it has hurt. It didn't seem like you were cutting the changeup in that start.

Ross: Maybe one or two. But for the most part it felt good. I mean, it's a pitch I'm going to have to work on just because of the fact that my ball cuts. Everything I throw, I try to throw it at 100 percent effort. It's just something I'm going to have to work on. I have to get out in front with it and really work on it. I think that's the biggest thing, but it has felt good.

Cole: Tell me about your curveball. You started throwing it in spring training last year, but once you went to the bullpen out of camp, it was shelved. Did you work on it this offseason?

Ross: I worked on it all during the season last year, too. Me and Joe Nathan would throw in the outfield. He obviously has like six pitches. So I was out there just working on stuff with him. He'd throw a curveball, and I would ask him how he throws his. Then I asked a lot of my buddies that had a curveball and just worked with that.

I think that was the biggest thing––kind of seeing what I had to do with it and how to throw it. I just threw it all the time with him. Then in the offseason I threw it. And I'm throwing it now. It's a work in progress obviously, but everything is that way.

Cole: Did you change how you throw the curveball from last spring?

Ross: No, it's the exact same––just a spike curveball. I'm trying to have something just a little bit different to get it off pace.

Cole: If you do end up in the same bullpen role as last season, where you'll pitch one inning sometimes or more long relief at others, do you plan on mixing in the curve?

Ross: We'll see. It all depends. It depends on what role I'm in and how I feel. Obviously going around the league the first time, now they know about me. It's not like I'm going to be doing anything different––it's just the fact that they're going to be guessing a little more, I would think. Having some film on me, they are able to see what they might want to do and have a game plan.

I could mix it in here and there––that's kind of what I wanted it for. I want to just mix it in, especially having a count where guys are just on me. I want to have it there in the arsenal––also that changeup. It'll be good to mix it around a little bit to try and get them off-balance.

Cole: If you are used in a longer relief role or starting, what do you feel the curveball can do to benefit your entire arsenal?

Ross: I would say just to throw them off––because everything I throw is along the same lines. My fastball is anywhere from 89-92. Then I've got a slider that's anywhere from––on a good day––it's anywhere from 86, 87, or 88 sometimes. Then my changeup, when I throw that, is like 83-85.

So to have something that just really mixes it up––where I can go and maybe throw a curveball in an 0-0 count or maybe a count where guys are hacking and things like that. I just want to have something to mix it up. That's the biggest thing.

Cole: Tell me about last season. You had big success early in the year, and as you mentioned, hitters didn't really know much about you. Did you notice hitters taking a different approach against you once the report got around?

Ross: I think all the batters, once they go through and see a guy, they adjust. So I feel like it did maybe. But honestly, I don't feel like it got any different. They didn't know me well enough, and I didn't know them well enough. So I was just trying to do what I had to do.

It ended up being a thing where I would've liked to finish stronger than I did, honestly. But it ended up being fine. Honestly I was totally shocked at how well it went last year, so I can't be disappointed. But I would've liked to have finished a little better than I did.

Cole: In your eyes, what led to that success last season? What were the keys to coming out and being strong from the start, despite your lack of upper-level experience before 2012?

Ross: I think it was really not caring, to a point. It was not putting pressure on myself. It was just enjoying it and working as hard as I could every day. I had guys around me on the team that helped me, encouraged me, and worked with me. They just kind of mentored me––really put me through it and helped me out when I needed it. It was great.

Cole: Aside from the changeup and curveball, is there anything that you feel like you can add or improve upon going into your second big league season?

Ross: I mean, obviously every year you want to try and have good fastball command. So if I had to say anything, it would be the fastball command. But it's really just everything. You want everything to work. Some days it's not going to work, and some days it's going to work. But it's definitely going to be command with everything. To command it all would be perfect.

Cole: In a way, it feels like lefty reliever Joe Ortiz has been the Robbie Ross of 2013 spring training. He's going out and attacking guys, throwing strikes, putting up zeros, and having quick innings on a consistent basis. Obviously you guys are quite different as pitchers, but it's a similar approach on the mound. Have you talked to him at all?

Ross: I don't talk to him that much. He does his thing, and he does it well. Honestly, it was funny because the guys that were around me said the same thing. They didn't want to talk to me because last year was just like, ‘If it's working, it's working.' And for him, he's doing well. My hat's off to him, and I hope he keeps working hard.

It's cool to be known as that in my mind. I mean, last year was great. And for someone to say, ‘Hey, Ortiz is the other Robbie Ross,' is kind of cool. But honestly he's a good dude and he's working hard, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do. I'm happy for him.

Cole: Right before this interview, you were working on your pickoff move with Kenny Rogers on the practice field. Rogers obviously had one of the better moves in the game in his time. What was that like? What were you guys talking about?

Ross: Just how to work on the move––that was the biggest thing. Being around a guy like that is just unreal. Especially someone who has been around there and done that. He had to go from a power pitcher to someone who had to be more crafty and deceptive. It's pretty cool having a guy there that's had that many seasons and played as well as he did.

Cole: Do you have a preference as to your role this season?

Ross: I want to be in the big leagues. But I would love to be a starter. I really would like to be a starter. But if it's not this year, I hope it's down the road somewhere. But I want to be in the big leagues either way.

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