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This could be the year that Tyson Ross turns into a legitimate ace

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In this age of baseball with all its new numbers and notations, there is a stat known as "hard-hit rate" that measures exactly what it says. Companies that do tracking for teams use various charting methodologies to establish this.

Last season, the two starting pitchers with the lowest hard-hit rate in baseball were Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw. But you might be hard-pressed to guess who ranked No. 3, as he was the only pitcher in the top 14 with a losing record -- San Diego Padres starter Tyson Ross.

"That's cool," Ross said when he was made aware of his 9 percent hard-hit rate on Tuesday. "It's what I try to do -- create poor contact. I take a lot of pride in that I can do that. I've studied that art of pitching, in terms of what the hitter sees and how they react. It's something I've tried to put into play the last couple of years. You've just got to fool the hitter's eye."

Ross is one pitcher who might be on the verge of something pretty good. Over the past three seasons with the Padres, he's compiled a 3.07 ERA, but the old-school wins and losses keep his name out of the limelight. During that span, he's 26-34. In six seasons overall in the majors with the Padres and Oakland Athletics, he's never finished a season with a winning record.

Padres manager Andy Green hasn't made a lot of decisions this spring, but he made it a point in mid-February to name Ross San Diego's Opening Day starter for the first time.

"I think he earned it," said Green, who watched Ross excel from the other side as the Arizona Diamondbacks' third base coach. "Tyson can be great."

How great?

Austin Hedges caught 17 of Ross' 33 starts last season (in which Ross had a 2.79 ERA and held opponents to a .223 batting average and .627 OPS). He doesn't hold back in his praise.

"I think he's got the best stuff in baseball," said Hedges, who went as far as to say Ross was Cy Young-capable at his best. "He makes a lot of guys look pretty bad."

Ross works with a 93-mph fastball that he can rev up to 97, if he needs to. His out-pitches are his sinker, which helped produce a 62-percent groundball rate that ranked third in the majors last season behind Brett Anderson and Dallas Keuchel, and a slider the 28-year-old has spent the last 17 years honing. Ross throws his slider 43 percent of the time, the highest rate in the majors.

"It does whatever it wants to do, whether it's backdoor, in, out, up down," Hedges said. "It looks like a fastball, but then it breaks a foot-and-a-half."

There are a couple of things that have kept Ross, who was 10-12 with a 3.26 ERA in 33 starts last season, from reaching the level of being discussed among the game's best. Chief among them are walks. He led the National League in walk rate (10 percent) and wild pitches (14) last season.

This offseason was devoted to a workout plan that focused on better balance, something he can directly apply to working on the pitching rubber. It's a part of what Ross calls his "growth mindset."

"I have to continue to evolve my fastball command," Ross said. "It's a matter of attacking the zone early and putting guys away to avoid some of that hard contact. I worked on my balance, eyes open and closed on stable surfaces, balancing on one leg or on a ball, just to get me more in tune with my body. I just want to push the limit of what I'm physically capable of."

The Padres' other pitchers have taken notice.

"Tyson comes to work every single day and is non-stop in improving himself," said teammate Brandon Morrow. "He's constantly doing little things to make himself better, strange things in the weight room, working from his toes to his eyebrows. He makes sure his foot works correctly, his ankle works correctly, his knee, all the way up the chain."

And Ross' manager has noticed, too.

"He leads by example," said Green, citing Colin Rea and Brandon Maurer as pitchers benefiting from Ross' tutelage. "When Tyson sees a guy get off base, he's going to grab him and say 'keep up with me.' That's the way an ace works."

Green sees Ross as an ace. Perhaps if he keeps avoiding bat barrels, baseball fans around the country will soon follow.