Joe Ross wasn’t on anybody’s radar when the season began, barely even known by members of the Nationals major-league coaching staff. He was “The Other Guy Acquired in the Trea Turner Deal,” a young right-hander with some upside but not a pitcher who figured into the picture in 2015.
Which makes Thursday’s events all the more remarkable. Needing to remove somebody from their current rotation to open a slot for Stephen Strasburg in his return from an oblique strain, the Nationals elected to move struggling veteran Doug Fister to their bullpen, sticking with Ross as one of their five starters for the stretch run of a pennant race.
And the thing is, Ross absolutely has earned it, both because of his performance and because of the way he has handled everything since making his major-league debut earlier this summer.
“I just think he has been unfazed by any of it, from his opening start through today,” manager Matt Williams said. “He’s aggressive, he throws strikes. He’s faced some pretty good pitching when he’s been on the mound, and he’s held his own with all of them. So I just think he’s prepared and he’s ready and he’s unfazed by any of it.”
The numbers speak for themselves. Through seven big-league starts, Ross owns a 2.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and astounding, 47-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 total innings.
This from a 22-year-old who had started all of three games above Class A prior to this season. So how is it that Ross has managed to maintain so much poise since being thrown to the wolves with little experience?
“That’s something I learned, I guess, when I was younger,” he said. “Ever since pro ball, it’s really become an important thing. Especially as a pitcher, once you kind of get down on yourself, the other team and their hitters can jump on that and try to capitalize. Especially here, the biggest thing is focusing from pitch-to-pitch. And if one guy gets you, then it’s on to the next guy and try to go from there.”
The younger brother of an All-Star, San Diego’s Tyson Ross, Joe Ross has displayed maturity beyond his years since arriving in D.C. These traits aren’t common in 22-year-olds, but the Nationals have quickly realized this is no common 22-year-old.
“It’s rare,” Williams said of Ross’ advanced mental approach to the game. “But he understands if he makes pitches, he has a chance to get them out. We’ve seen so far that he doesn’t walk a whole lot of guys and makes them put the ball in play. And that’s important.”
From a baseball standpoint, the decision to keep Ross in the rotation over Fister was an easy one. But there were some complicating factors standing in the way, most notably the fact the Nationals are monitoring Ross’ workload this season and likely will cap his innings pitched. He has now thrown a combined 121 innings in the majors and minors this year, essentially duplicating his totals from both 2013 and 2014.
The Nationals typically restrict young pitchers to a roughly 30 percent increase in innings pitched from one year to the next, which suggests Ross will capped around the 160-inning mark. Which also means he may not make it through the rest of the season in the starting rotation.
The organization isn’t saying for sure what its plan is the rest of the way for Ross, but it stands to reason Fister may still be needed to start games come some point in September.
For now, the Nationals are thrilled simply to have the kid pitching every fifth day. And pitching quite well.
“Joe’s confident in his ability,” first baseman Clint Robinson said. “He has a lot of poise on the mound. He trusts his stuff and knows that he’s good enough to be up here and be successful. We love having him in the rotation. Good guy, love him to death and what he brings to us.”