How about getting six whiffs and six called strikes with his slider? “Definitely threw some good ones, but I felt like I threw some that kind of backed up a little bit, the velocity wasn’t very consistent and I felt like they kind of floated in there a little bit more than others.”
Is he always like this? “Yeah, I’m pretty self-critical. Just kind of how it is, I guess.”
That final answer came with a slight smile. Ross, a right-handed starter for the Washington Nationals, knew he was needling a solid performance. He is not the first pitcher to do this, and he certainly won’t be the last. But he has done this since growing up in Oakland, Calif. — since his older brother, Tyson, was a two-way star and a high bar to reach for. Big dreams meant a lot of frustration. That was the deal, and it still is.
Rob Bruno remembers a 16-year-old Ross slumped in the dugout after a rough few innings. They were at a showcase in Arizona, and Ross was knocked around by a team of high school draft prospects. Bruno, who runs NorCal Baseball, recalls another coach going to console Ross. He told Ross that his fastball clocked 90 mph. And only then did Ross let his shoulders relax.
“He just assumed he was bad,” Bruno said in a phone interview in March. “We had to tell him, like: ‘No, you’re making strides, man. You’re good.’ Otherwise he had these visions for himself and was frustrated if he didn’t get there.”
So far this season, Ross has three great starts and a dud. In the outlier, the St. Louis Cardinals scored 10 earned runs against him in 4⅓ innings. In the others, he has yielded one run in 17 innings and has a 0.882 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). He should get his next chance against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park this weekend. He will keep pushing through the second act of a career split into before and after.
The center of it is July 19, 2017. That’s when he underwent Tommy John surgery in Texas, repairing the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Before, he was a former first-round pick for the San Diego Padres, part of the Nationals’ playoff rotation at 23 years old, a pitcher full of promise. After, he had to relearn how to throw a baseball. It was like falling to square one.
Last spring, before Ross opted out of playing in 2020 because of coronavirus concerns, Manager Dave Martinez spoke about “pre-surgery Joe.” Ross had agreed that he felt normal again. And this spring, before Ross started the season with 12 scoreless innings, there was more talk of him rediscovering a past version of himself. The velocity of his sinker ticked up into the mid-90s. His slider had its old bite. His change-up, a pitch in perpetual development, was faring well with lefties.
So now, a month into what could be his first full season in the rotation, Ross can shift his discerning gaze. He is not breaking down a string of subpar appearances. He is looking at above-average results and working to improve them. Against the Mets, for instance, he felt good about his one-strike sliders and not so good about the ones he threw with two strikes. Those, he explained, had to be in the dirt and instead hung near the bottom of the zone. He was also unhappy with plunking Pete Alonso with an 0-2 fastball, turning a put-away count into a free pass. He wants to have better and more consistent control of his sinker and four-seam fastball.
He wants to be better, plain and simple.
“He did so much more good that he needs to realize and focus on the good,” Martinez said. “One thing I always tell the coaches: ‘Let’s take the positives out of everything and make them that much better, then the negatives will go away.’ That’s something that as a young pitcher, or as a young player, you’ll start realizing. For me, if you’re watching video on yourself, why would I want to watch something that I did wrong? I want to watch something that I did right and keep continuing to watch that.”
Is that a struggle with Ross?
“Yeah, of course he made a couple mistakes. But overall, I mean, he made pitches when they counted most and he threw the ball really well,” Martinez added, speaking the morning after Ross faced the Mets at Citi Field. “... If you throw two pitches or three pitches and you make mistakes on them, for me, yesterday, they weren’t costly at all. Learn from the other 50 or 60 pitches that you made that were really good. Those are the ones you want to put in your memory, not the bad ones.”
That has never been Ross’s approach to self-scouting. But if he keeps on this track, and the innings keep tilting in his favor, he could have fewer and fewer mistakes to key on. He may leave himself little choice.