The Nationals are known for caution with young pitchers, and said all along that Joe Ross would be on an innings limit of some kind, monitoring his activity closely in his first big league season. After struggling with diminished velocity and command in his last two outings, Williams said the team would discuss what to do with him, since he threw 149 2/3 innings between the minors and majors this season, 28 more innings than he has thrown in any other professional season. The Nationals tend to limit young pitchers from big innings jumps from year-to-year, and Ross is nearing a 25 percent jump.
“When we looked at Joe, we had a number in mind going into the season. We have a protocol coming into the season,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “With the escalation that he’s had starting in Double A and getting to the big leagues and pitching meaningful innings for us, we felt it was time for us to get him flipped into the bullpen to get him through the last month of the season which he’s never really been before.”
Rizzo said the team never really considered shutting Ross down entirely. They want him to learn how to push through a full major league season, therefore sticking around through September. Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey — the most prominent and recently relevant shutdown subjects — were both coming off Tommy John surgeries when they were limited. Ross is healthy, and Rizzo said the Nationals can therefore handle him differently.
“We always were cognizant of his limitations and where we wanted to be with him,” Rizzo said. “Joe’s situation is different than the injured or rehabbing player. He’s a healthy player who because of his youth and because of his workload in the past, we have stringent limitations of what we do with him.”
Ross, acquired this offseason in the Steven Souza Jr./Trea Turner deal, began this season in Class AA Harrisburg. The Nationals called him up somewhat unexpectedly in June after Stephen Strasburg landed on the disabled list for the first time. Ross thrived, using his mid-90s fastball and biting slider to craft quality starts in five of his first six major league starts. Recently, that velocity fell as low as 90 miles per hour, and his previously impressive command deteriorated somewhat.
“Joe had incredible season. For a guy who just turned 22 a couple months ago, he showed the poise, the stuff of a seasoned pro,” Rizzo said. “We really liked him coming into the season obviously after making the trade for him, but he’s exceeded everybody’s expectations, especially on his developmental curve and on the time it took him to get to the big leagues and how he performed in the big leagues.”
Tanner Roark, who started last Friday after two minor league outings intended to build his stamina back to starter levels, will take Ross’s place in the rotation, which means he will likely start this weekend in Miami. Roark won 15 games as a starter last season, and is 3-1 with a 5.21 ERA in seven starts this season. Many of those starts have come on short notice, and he has bounced between short relief, long relief, and starting. Projected to be a part of next season’s rotation, particularly given the likelihood that free agents to-be Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann depart, Roark will have a chance to be in starter’s rhythm for rest of the regular season.