Joe: Ross Version 2.0

Pitching has always come pretty easily for TinCaps starter Joe Ross. That is, until the day that it didn’t.

On May 10th, 2012, Joe Ross was scheduled to start at Parkview Field against the South Bend Silver Hawks. It would have been his eighth professional appearance after having been selected in the first round, 25th overall, by San Diego in the 2011 draft. But his shoulder never felt quite right that day.

“I thought I’d get treatment, stretch and once I’d start throwing it’d feel better,” he said. “I got treatment and it still felt kind of tight. I got on the mound to warm up, threw about two pitches, and (then-TinCaps pitching coach) Willie Blair was like, “Hey, you feeling OK?” and I said, “No. Not at all.”’

Joe Ross meets with pitching coach Willie Blair. (Photo by Jeff Nycz)

Joe Ross meets with pitching coach Willie Blair. (Photo by Jeff Nycz)

San Diego’s Minor League Pitching Coordinator, Mike Cather, a former Major League pitcher, noticed the changes in Joe Ross almost immediately in spring training this year. “I think the first bullpen that Joe threw in the spring, everybody just looked at each other and said,’Wow! That is different.’”

Ross was 19 in the spring, going on 20, and was entering his second full professional season. Part of the change in Ross, at least on the mental side, was spurred by a comment made toward him at the end of the Padres instructional league in the fall.

“The last day, (Padres Minor League Infield Coordinator and former Fort Wayne Wizards Manager) Gary Jones told me, ‘Next year I don’t want you to come back and have people think you’re soft.’ He wanted me to have a little attitude. I remember thinking about that a lot in the offseason,” Ross said. He spent his offseason back home in Oakland, California, working out five to six times per week, trying to add weight to his frame, especially in his legs, which is where pitchers get their power.

“The goal I set for myself this season was that I didn’t want to leave anything back. I was disappointed in myself with how last year went. This year I wanted to come out, be ready to play, and show why I was drafted (where I was) and hopefully to get moved up. This year when I came back to spring training, I was there to have fun, but it was also a lot of business for me. I’m a little bit meaner you could say.”

So far, he’s been meaner on the mound and there’s no question about it, after his first season with the TinCaps was cut short due to shoulder inflammation. Ross was named a Midwest League All-Star after going 3-2 with a 2.71 ERA in 12 starts. In 66 1/3 innings, he struck out 51 and walked 19. Last year with the TinCaps, he went 0-2 with a 6.26 ERA in six games and only pitched 27 1/3 innings.

Ross’ temperament during his 2012 season became a bit of an inside joke between him and Blair. It spread so far that Blair requested Ross’ headshot on the video board at Parkview Field be replaced with a golden retriever puppy. (And show a golden retriever puppy the video board did.) Now that Blair is the pitching coach with the Padres, even Joe’s older brother, Tyson, who is with the big-league club, has heard the tale.

“It’s one of Willie’s favorite stories to tell,” said Tyson, who was acquired by San Diego in an off-season trade with Oakland. But the older Ross, who lives with his younger brother during the off-season, says that he’s seen Joe evolve during games, too. “He’s really honed that ability to lock it in and really come after some people. Then he goes back to doing whatever he does off the field. He found that identity on the field and it’s something that’s going to work for him.”

Photo by Jeff Nycz

Photo by Jeff Nycz

After Joe was injured last year, he spent some time down in Peoria, Arizona, where the Padres have their spring training complex, and finished the regular season with the Short-Season A Eugene Emeralds, going 0-2 with a 2.03 ERA in eight starts. He also pitched in game one of the Midwest League Championship Series against Wisconsin.

Understanding the mental changes he needed to make with the help of Jones’ comment, he turned to his brother and role model, Tyson, for how to develop physically.

“I’ve really tried to lead by example,” said the 26-year-old Ross. “We’ve lived together the last two off-seasons. I try and help him out nutrition-wise, trying to stock the house with good food and making dinner. I go to the gym all the time and we don’t always work out together, but I’ll say, ‘Hey, Joe do you want to come?’ Sometimes he’ll come with me and sometimes he’ll work out on his own. I’ve got to make sure I get my stuff handled, but while I’m handling my stuff it’s showing him the way.”

Even though the two grew up in the same house, Tyson insists that they are very different pitchers. He is a bit taller, standing 6’6”, 230 pounds, versus Joe’s 6’3”, 185 pounds. And for two brothers who could someday play on the same team in the majors, they don’t talk about a lot of baseball.

“Talking baseball is the last thing we’re going to do. I would say we maybe do it twice a week for ten minutes—texting, not even on the phone,” Joe says, giving away his age by his preference for text-based communication. But there is a caring bond between the two. “Even within those two times a week for 10 minutes, he’ll ask me how I did, how I felt about how I threw, what worked well and what was a problem for the outing. As much as any coach has worked with me, those undoubtedly have helped mechanics-wise and mentally, but it seems like anything that my brother goes over with me, it goes that much deeper for me and makes that much more sense. It’s player to player and brother to brother.”

“The relationship we have,” Tyson says, “he knows that all I ever want is for him to succeed. I’m not going to come down on him and hammer him or anything, I’m just going to listen to how his game went and try and give him a little something so that next time he goes out there he’ll be better than the previous time. That’s the message I’ve tried to tell him – good game, bad game, great game, it doesn’t matter. I just want you to be able to step back and think about, ‘What can you do better?’ If I can get him thinking in that mindset, he’s going to see himself jump to that next level.

Photo by Jeff Nycz

Photo by Jeff Nycz

Cather stopped back into Parkview Field in mid-June to watch Joe pitch, as he got his second half of the 2013 season underway. Not only did he want Ross’ mean attitude, he wanted a mean two-seam fastball. In layman’s terms, that’s a pitch with a bit more movement to it which will help it elude the opposition’s bats.

“I think that these guys go home (in the off-season) and get a chance to, I call it ‘marinate’, you know, marinate on all the information they received. Especially the young guys coming out of high school, having a full season or at least being involved in a full season of experience, these guys get a chance so sit back and take a look at what they’re doing and maybe an approach of how they go about (their work),” Cather said. “Maybe it was his brother coming into the organization, but the maturity level jumped up three years. The way he carries himself has far exceeded anything I expected. For me, it was him coming back with the maturity of somebody well beyond his years.”

Whether Joe is being advised by Cather, or his brother Tyson, who can pick up the Padres’ in-house feed from Parkview Field on his way back in from batting practice, he’s a more assertive player than he’s ever been before, a meaner guy on the mound.

“I feel like the biggest change for me since last year is a little bit more comfort and confidence in my abilities. Just from going from last year, it wasn’t an ideal full first season for me. Confidence has been the biggest difference in my performance.”

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