His stuff was unquestioned – a high-90s fastball, a devastating slider, lots of movement – but his unconventional pitching motion, and indecision on the part of the Athletics – was he a starter or a reliever? – muddied the once clear waters of his career.
Ross started 2010 as a reliever, striking out Ken Griffey, Jr. for his first career K, and coming out of the bullpen his first 11 appearances, sporting a 3.31 ERA. But, he didn’t get out of the fifth inning in each of his first two starts in the middle of May, took three straight losses in three straight appearances, and didn't start again for the rest of the season.
Ross was one of the final A’s cuts in spring training of 2011, but was recalled to join the bullpen within the first two weeks of the season. He took the place of injured Dallas Braden in the starting rotation, but then Ross himself suffered an oblique injury – similar to the one that bothered him during his junior year in Berkeley – and went on the disabled list. He had a 2.75 ERA in 36 innings at the time of the injury, but by the time he recovered, he was assigned to Triple-A Sacramento, where he had a 7.61 ERA in nine starts.
Ross was again the odd man out in 2012, where, because Oakland did not need a fifth starter until mid-April, he didn’t make the roster out of spring training. In a month and a half with the big club, he posted a 6.51 ERA. His next stint in the Majors was once again, as a reliever.
Then, the San Diego Padres traded for the 6-foot-5 righty.
“I didn’t know I was going to start or relieve or whatever, but I just knew that I was going to have a clean slate coming in here, a fresh start, and I had to make the most of my second opportunity,” says Ross.
Since joining the Padres before the 2013 season, Ross has thrown twice as many big league innings in two years (320.2) as he did in Oakland in three years (148.2), and he’s made at least 16 starts in each of the past three seasons, taking the ball 31 times in 2014.
“I think it’s just the repetitions, knowing that you’re going to get the ball every fifth day, and just continuing to learn out there,” says Ross of his starting role. “Definitely, the routine of things helps. You just keep learning and keep getting better.”
Ross’s strikeout numbers also jumped. He averaged 6.17 strikeouts per nine innings with the Athletics, but since joining the Padres, he’s averaging 8.81 K’s per nine, and has held opposing batters to a .225 average (2013) and a .230 average (2014) – both more than 20 points lower than opponents hit against him in green and gold.
“I think his confidence continues to grow,” says San Diego manager Bud Black, himself a former pitching coach with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “That’s the main thing. I really think there’s a true sense of purpose with Tyson, and where he’s been and where he can go. Based on last year, the confidence factor is really high. There’s a tremendous amount of effort being put in to get better, really looking at the little things, and knowing that those make the difference.”
Ross earned himself a nod as a National League All-Star last season, something that seemed impossible when he was being yo-yoed between the bullpen, starting rotation, majors and minors with the Athletics.
“I found out the morning of the announcements,” Ross says. “They called me into the office before a day game, and Buddy and [Darren] Balsley let me know … It’s pretty unbelievable. I was a year and a half away from being traded, and I was on the outside looking in, in Oakland, so things had come a long ways.”
Ross and his parents – Willie and Jeanie – both made the trip to Minnesota, as did Ross’s younger brother Joe Ross, then a pitcher in the San Diego system.
“They were thrilled. They couldn’t wait to get online and buy a ticket out there to Minnesota. Everyone was out there. It was pretty cool,” Ross says. “It worked out that [Joe] had an off day, so he flew out from Lake Elsinore, and made it for that All-Star Game. It was cool. They’ve been supporting me the whole way, and to have my whole family out there in the stands, it was a pretty cool moment.”
Though Ross didn’t get to pitch in the game, he was able to sit back and take in the festivities, including the fêting of Derek Jeter.
“I think just being there for Jeter’s last one, that was the coolest part,” says Ross. “That was pretty cool. All the ceremonies for him, watching him get taken out mid-inning, and the applause he was getting.”
Then, it was back to work, as Ross finished the season 13-14 with a 2.81 ERA, throwing two complete games, a career-high 195.2 innings, striking out a career-high 195 batters and sporting a 1.211 WHIP.
“It’s just being able to execute pitches, throw the pitches I want in the right counts and it’s just consistency, overall,” says Ross, who’s been guided on that road to consistency by Balsley, the Padres pitching coach.
“Fundamentally, he’s made great strides, so a lot of things that Darren has put in place, just on the basic pitching principles and fundamentals, he’s passed,” says Black. “Now, it’s just sort of the finer things that he’s working on, that will make him a better pitcher.”
Balsley has worked extensively with Ross to smooth out the kinks in his unorthodox delivery, and he’s one of the people Ross credits with his rapid improvement.
“I’ve gotten my tempo down,” Ross says. “Balsley helped me tremendously with that, and that gives me the ability to repeat my delivery and execute pitches. I think just given that I’m a tall guy, I’ve got a lot of moving parts, and you’ve got to get them all in sync to be able to repeat the delivery and execute.”
What part of his motion needed a little timing adjustment?
“The whole thing, man,” Ross says. “From start to finish. He’s given me a couple little throwing drills, trying to understand it. He does a lot of video work, shows me stuff on the computer, and getting those reps in.”
For Ross, the best thing about this year’s camp is that he doesn’t have to worry about making the rotation, or having to impress anybody. This year, it’s all about getting ready, at his pace.
“I can take a little bit more time, just to make sure that I can get my timing down and everything,” says Ross. “But, you’ve got to get that intensity going in spring training to get ready for the season. You can’t just wake up one day and turn it on.”
“More than anything,” Black says, the difference in Ross, from his first spring with the Friars to this one, is Ross’s “true intent to get to be where his potential – we feel – is, and he’s really working hard. It’s really great to see.”