Ross' rockets: Padres pitcher hits harder than he throws

Exit velocity of 93.5 mph was higher than Goldschmidt, Cespedes and Donaldson

January 18th, 2016

Of all the wonderful things we learned from Statcast™'s first season -- things like how spin correlates to velocity  and what curveball spin means  and how much of a batted ball's exit velocity has to do with the speed of the pitch -- perhaps nothing was more outstanding than this: Tyson Ross hits the ball harder, on average, than Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson or Paul Goldschmidt.

Yes: Really. Yes: That Tyson Ross. The pitcher.

You can see it for yourself, actually. Immediately, if not sooner, please head on over to our Statcast™ exit velocity leaderboards. There he is, just ahead of the aforementioned trio of noted sluggers. Ross, who has not stopped being a pitcher since we we began discussing this, is sitting there at 17th, ahead of stars Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Joc Pederson, coming in at an average of 93.5 mph. That's exactly 0.1 mph faster than his average four-seam fastball -- which, again, is his primary job function. To pitch, rather than to hit. 

The guy who carried a career line of .174/.206/.185 with one extra-base hit into the season outslugged baseball's best sluggers in 2015, at least by one measure. It's enough to make one do a double-take, but fear not, that number is real and it's spectacular.

And at a time when we're again seeing talk about the DH coming to the National League, it's important to remember that there are some pitchers, such as Ross, who don't need anyone taking hacks for them.

But it's here we need to pause to acknowledge the obvious elephant in the room: This is not a terribly large sample size. Ross had 29 tracked non-bunt batted balls in play. Unofficially, we've been using 100 for more serious analysis, but what's the point of havint this state-of-the-art technology meant to improve our understanding of the game if we can't use it now and then in the middle of winter to stop and say, "Wow, would you look at that?"

Let's acknowledge the sample size reality and move on to point out that Ross didn't run into this number by accident. He had 10 batted balls of more than 100 mph this year, including the homer you see in the video that leads this story, and this triple off of Addison Reed from June in Arizona:

Gif: SD Ross triple

On its own, 10 batted balls over 100 mph isn't necessarily that impressive; among the many hitters with more than that are Ben Paulsen, Alex Guerrero, Jimmy Paredes and Jace Peterson. Of course, Ross had only about one-tenth as many plate appearances as many full-time players, so he's never going to keep up with the raw numbers. But if we look at percentage of non-bunt batted balls hit over 100 mph ... well, Ross still falls just short of the top 100, using a minimum of 25 tracked balls. Still, his 21.4 percent mark is higher than Andrew McCutchen, Freddie Freeman or Nolan Arenado. Those are real actual hitters, among the best in the game.

But OK: Let's stick to pitchers. While it was a bad year for pitchers hitting -- as a whole, pitchers hit .131/.158/.168, which was the second-worst line (by wOBA) in the history of the game -- Ross still has Madison Bumgarner, who cracked five homers in 2015, as a contemporary. He's got Zack Greinke, who as recently as 2013 hit a stellar .328/.409/.379. What about them? We took the 81 pitchers with at least 10 tracked batted balls this year, and neither one cracked the top five in pitcher exit velocity.

Batting exit velocity leaders, pitchers, minimum 10 non-bunt balls in play

  1. Ross, 93.5 mph

  2. Jon Lester, 92.5 mph

  3. James Shields, 90.6 mph

  4. Carlos Martinez, 90.2 mph

  5. Shelby Miller, 89.8 mph

    Of course, it's not just about exit velocity, because angle off the bat counts for a lot. Thirty-three of the pitchers in our sample had a negative average launch angle, which is to say that they did a whole lot of pounding the ball right on into the ground. We're understanding that a launch angle of roughly 10 degrees to 25 degrees turns into a line drive, given enough velocity, and as you can see from the chart below, Ross' hits aren't only harder than everyone's, but on average are at a nice enough angle to lead to some chance of success:

    Ross is a pretty good pitcher, seemingly always on the verge of breaking through. He's increased his strikeout percentage each year since 2012, and his ground-ball rate and homer rate have dropped steadily too. But no matter how Ross' career lands from here on out, he can always have this. He can always say "I hit the ball harder than any hitter on my team and both 2015 MVPs," because, well, he did.

    If we don't hand out an award for pitchers who do that, we should probably start thinking about it.