Joe Ross is working on mechanical issues at Class AAA Syracuse. (Nick Wass/AP)

Welcome back to Minor League Monday, our weekly post about the goings on in the Nationals organization beyond South Capitol Street. Sometimes, we’ll look at one player on the rise. Other weeks, we’ll give you a roundup of the need-to-know details from the Nationals’ top prospects. 

Joe Ross’s stuff used to be so electric, opposing teams would comment. He had a mid-90s fastball that moved so much he hardly needed anything more, and a tight, natural slider to be envied. He needed a third pitch, sure, but late in 2015 and at times in 2016, he was faring fine without it. But something was missing when he began this season in Syracuse, then made three starts in the majors. The life was gone, the electricity had fizzled.

His results dropped off accordingly. At one point on a chilly night in Colorado, his fastball velocity dropped into the high 80s. His slider spun, but did not bite. In his last big league outing he allowed five runs on seven hits in four innings to the battered New York Mets. The Nationals sent him to Syracuse the next day because, as Dusty Baker put it, “Joe just isn’t Joe.”

The problem, the Nationals decided, is mechanical. The 23-year-old’s arm slot dropped considerably from his successful years to this one, as seen in the graph of his vertical release point below, produced by Brooks Baseball.  He is not getting on top of the ball, which in his case undermines his movement.

 “We had to do a couple mechanical adjustments with him,” Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “Ball was flattening out. Keep the sink on it.”

Ross’s sinking fastball helped him get ground balls and avoid hard contact during his earliest outings in 2015 and 2016. His groundball rate in those years was 49.8 and 42.6 percent, respectively, according to FanGraphs. This season, his groundball rate fell to 36.7 percent, lowest of his professional career. His percentage of hard contact allowed, also tabulated by FanGraphs, jumped from around 30 percent in his first two seasons to nearly 35 percent.

All of that, the Nationals believe, can be attributed to his release, which is lower than in the past. A sinking release point can signal injury trouble, which Ross has had, battling through that shoulder problem last season. But Maddux and Baker insist he is healthy, and given the Nationals’ cautious history with young pitchers, it is very unlikely they would not place him on the disabled list if he were ailing. So something else must be behind the dip.

“Usually when the arm drops it’s fatigue,” Maddux said. “He seemed to fatigue early. The first couple innings, it would be where it needs to be. Then the last couple innings, it would drop and his ball would flatten out.”

One solution, referenced a few times by Baker after Ross’s rough outings, is to build stamina, to condition more. Maddux does not believe that is the problem as much as Ross’s delivery.

“Get a delivery that you can repeat,” Maddux said. “That way you’re not battling yourself, therefore you’ll last longer.”

So that is Ross’s task in Syracuse, where Maddux’s reports from the righty’s last outing indicated the changes were making an impact. After allowing seven runs (two earned) in five innings a week ago, Ross threw six innings of three-run ball Friday, scattering five hits and striking out three. Maddux said Ross’s velocity and movement began to reemerge in that outing, a sign that the changes might be taking hold.

No one with the Nationals has provided a timetable for his return. The Nationals need a starter for Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, for which Ross would be on regular rest, though no one has indicated that he will be considered.

  • The Nationals’ first pick in the 2016 draft, shortstop Carter Kieboom, landed on the disabled list at Class A Hagerstown on Sunday with what the team calls a “right leg injury.” Kieboom joins fellow Baseball America top 100 prospect Juan Soto rehabbing an ankle injury in West Palm Beach, on the DL.
  • The Nationals have four players in this year’s updated Baseball America Top 100. For more, read here.