Braves Change a Battery

We’re to the point now of there being less baseball, which means we’re to the point now of there being more important baseball. The stakes are the highest they’ve been, and all those little managerial decisions people love to complain about during the regular season might at last be worth actually complaining about, because the leverage of everything is suddenly through the roof. Every little decision now could conceivably contribute to a team winning or not winning the World Series. Thursday, we all got news of one decision in particular — for Friday’s Wild Card playoff against the Cardinals, the Braves will start David Ross at catcher instead of Brian McCann.

It feels weird to imagine the Braves deliberately benching McCann at a time like this, where one game will decide whether there are subsequent games. McCann’s long been the regular in Atlanta, up to and including this season, and by and large he’s been a terrific one. You’d think that a team would go with its trusted regulars in a one-game playoff, no matter how much it also trusts its backups. But it’ll be David Ross catching Kris Medlen and the relievers, and more, the decision seems sound.

We should begin by noting why this decision was made in the first place. Fredi Gonzalez:

“[McCann’s] been banged up here for a while. God Bless him. In the one-game series, you go with Rossy. In the longer series, (McCann) is going to play. He’s not that banged up that he’s not going to play.”

McCann seems like he’s destined for offseason shoulder surgery, to fix up something he’s been fighting through almost all year. Gonzalez also took care to highlight Ross’ defensive advantage over McCann, as Ross throws out an awful high percentage of would-be base-stealers. So it’s a decision that’s been made with defense in mind, but not exclusively. Now we analyze!

Even though Friday’s game is the only game, and anything can happen in a single given baseball game, we have no choice but to analyze by probability, by looking at the overall picture. The best thing the Braves can do is increase their odds of winning and advancing to the Division Series. Odds are all you can control, and single games can be crazy.

The Cardinals will be starting Kyle Lohse on the mound, and Lohse is a righty. David Ross bats righty, and Brian McCann bats lefty. Instantly you’d think the Braves would want to go with the guy with the platoon advantage, but it isn’t that simple. (Assume it’s never that simple.) Lohse, the last two years, has posted no platoon split at all. Ross, for his career, has posted no platoon split at all. McCann has a platoon split, but he’s also banged up, implying that he’s not at 100 percent. We can’t just look at McCann’s career performance, because we have relevant and recent information.

Against righties, McCann has a career 123 wRC+, and Ross has a career 99 wRC+. But Ross hasn’t posted a wRC+ below 100 against righties since 2007, and McCann’s split in this particular season, this season in which he’s been playing hurt, is 89. Ross, this year, came in at 120. The long-term splits tell you one thing; the more recent splits tell you the opposite, and we should more heavily weight the more recent splits. It matters that McCann has been and still is injured.

Defensively, Ross does indeed have an advantage in terms of controlling the running game. Opposing teams have attempted about 0.9 steals against McCann per nine innings, and he’s thrown out 24 percent of runners. Opposing teams have attempted about 0.7 steals against Ross per nine innings, and he’s thrown out 39 percent of runners. Contrary to what Gonzalez said, the Cardinals aren’t a big stolen-base team, but it’s still a factor and one figures that in a one-game playoff, the run environment will be lower than usual, so extra bases will be more important than usual. Ross is the better bet in this department.

By pitch blocking, there doesn’t seem to be a real significant difference between the two guys. And though I recalled off the top of my head that Mike Fast found McCann to be a pretty good pitch-framer, it turns out Fast found Ross to be an even better pitch-framer. There isn’t enough precision in that data for us to declare outright that Ross is better than McCann at receiving, but we can’t say that he’s worse. He seems to be very similar.

When you put it together, Ross makes a lot of sense. In order to side with McCann, you have to believe that McCann’s a better hitter than he’s shown, but someone who’s hurt is likely to underachieve and McCann’s been playing hurt and underachieving. In terms of one-game win probability, the difference between starting McCann on Friday and starting Ross might be something like one or two percent, if even that, but every little edge is an edge. You don’t want to get eliminated and wonder whether you tried your hardest not to.

There is something kind of troubling here, though. Gonzalez intimated that, if the Braves win Friday, McCann will go back to getting the bulk of the work in the playoffs. He’s the regular, and he should remain the regular, or something. Seems to me that if Ross is the guy Friday, Ross should be the guy most days. Gonzalez has determined that starting David Ross on Friday increases the Braves’ chances of winning. Why should anything about that change in a playoff series? But for one thing, we can’t criticize someone for something until that someone actually does that something, and for another, maybe Ross isn’t capable of playing that often, since he’s a backup. Plus, you can get into the intangibles of benching a trusted regular at the most critical stretch of the year. I don’t know how that would go over and I’m not going to speculate.

David Ross is a pretty underrated backstop. In a huge spot, he’s got the trust of his manager, and while the catchers might end up making hardly any difference on Friday, Ross could in theory make all of the difference. It’s all just about the odds. Relative to Brian McCann, Ross seems to have pretty good odds.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

25 Responses to “Braves Change a Battery”

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  1. Anon21 says:

    I don’t know how much there is to it, but there is a sense among Braves commentators, at least, that Ross gets exposed and ineffective if he plays too many games in a row. And Ross himself has been fighting through an oblique injury that’s sapped his power. I support the decision to go with Ross for the one-gamer, but I think it might make all the sense in the world to try and split catching duties equally between them for the rest of the postseason, just to give each as much rest as is possible.

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    • jpg says:

      The funny thing is that, Ross probably agrees with is. From what I’ve read in the past, Ross has actually been offered more money and a starting gigs in the past from other teams. Ross, it’s been said, loves Atlanta and is happy in his role there. He’s probably good enough to start for a good number of teams and is, at the very least, good enough to evenly split the catcher duties on half the teams in baseball.

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  2. SeaBass says:

    Love your articles Jeff, especially this one.

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  3. Jake says:

    Solid analysis, but the idea that the difference between McCann and Ross would ever amount to 1-2% is laughable, even if we assume they play to their career averages. Baseball players just aren’t worth that much (and indeed the moneyline has remained stable at around -160 to -165 since the starters were announced yesterday).

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  4. Slats says:

    FanGraphs has improved so much since your arrival Jeff.


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  5. Brian says:

    Another point is that the Braves are a lefty heavy lineup. Normal lineup has lefties Bourne, Heyward, Freeman, and McCann, righties Prado, Uggla and Simmons, and switch Chipper. In a game where there’s a strong chance the starter gets pulled at first real trouble, such as in the 4th or 5th, this is definitely a more balanced lineup that is less vulnerable once relievers come in the game. You’re replacing a split-heavy McCann with split-neutral Ross.

    This could factor into why Fredi will go back to McCann starting once the real playoffs start, b/c you assume that the starting pitchers will stay out there longer. Ross will probably be getting all starts against lefty pitchers in the NLDS and on anyway.

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    • Anon21 says:

      I don’t think that really holds up as applied to the Cardinals. They only have two lefties out of the pen, and both range from mediocre to terrible.

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  6. Calvin says:

    They’ve pretty much been splitting September duty anyway, and the Braves didn’t punt until the last 2 games. If they make the NLDS or beyond, I’d expect both to get starts. McCann’s somewhat hurt, Ross isn’t, expected performance even with the reverse platoon isn’t that different, not playing today could make McCann better for the NLDS, etc. It’s not like they’re putting Jeff Mathis in there. Even Braves fans aren’t flipping their shit over this one, and they’re more than happy to bitch about dumb moves by Fredi (and Wren).

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    • bstar says:

      Ross is banged up, too, as mentioned above. He’s got some kind of oblique issue. Still, as a Braves fan I love this move. Ross has simply been better all year, and McCann’s REALLY banged up.

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  7. Matty Brown says:

    I have always been a David Ross fan and felt he was underrated, but I was surprised both that he throws out such a high % of runners and that he has no platoon split.

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  8. Dylan H says:

    A thought on Ross for one game vs McCann for a series:

    Would it be logical to go with that if one believed that McCann currently has the higher ceiling and lower floor to his performance potential. In that case, maybe the risk of having a “floor-type” day from McCann is not worth it when the stakes are as high as in a win-or-go-home game. But in a series, you could absorb a “floor-type” performance in hopes of getting ceiling type output. So you decide to go with the guy who is probably more steady and who has strengths in the defensive areas which aren’t as volatile for the one game deal. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

    Not that Fredi Gonzalez would ever state anything so clearly. If this is part of his reasoning, I would guess he would at least explain it as “you feel like Rossy gives you the better chance to win one, but for a longer series you feel like McCann is the guy you run out there.” But this is neither the time nor the place to delve into what if any thoughts are behind the feelings the skipper likes to reference.

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  9. chiefglockandhummer says:

    i’m a braves fan and i know a lot of other braves fan, and it’s true: braves fans are not mad about this, and feel the difference is probably a wash as long as mac’s hurt.

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  10. Cus says:

    Two of Medlen’s most dominant games where he had 10+ Ks came with Ross behind the dish. Maybe he calls a better game for Medlen for whatever reason.

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  11. Micah says:
    has some great things to say about the wild card games, check it out.
    I actually think playing ross is the right move for the game, as he is really good in his own right and McCann is struggling

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  12. NickH says:

    Starting Ross in the play-in game also means that McCann gets 3 consecutive rest days before the NLDS starts; if he manages to be productive this post-season, that might be an important reason why.

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  13. BRAVESFAN says:

    I’ll take a Ross over a loss.

    Go Braves!

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  14. Phantom Stranger says:

    Anyone that has watched Braves’ games the last month knows this is the right call. McCann has been playing hurt and his swing looks very, very bad. He was never a great defender and with the injury might be run on at will.

    Sure, McCann would be the starter if he was healthy, but he hasn’t been that in two months.

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  15. Antonio Bananas says:

    I love Diamond Dave. I think this is the right move. McCann has seemed to (statistically and eye test) had a lot of bad luck and on top of that, a lot of injuries. Ross is very good.

    You can still utilize McCann in a pinch hit situation. If you win, McCann gets more of a rest, not much of a loss if any with Ross playing. Maybe McCann plays better down the line if he’s healthier.

    Kinda wonder though, is a battered McCann better than Dan Uggla?

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  16. walt526 says:

    How does the roster situation work for the one game Wild Card round? Can they reset the rosters for the Divisional Series?

    If they can change rosters between playoff rounds, then teams will be able to not carry their SP’s (unless they wanted them available as relievers) and play with a far longer bench than normal. This would allow the Braves to potentially carry a third catcher, which would make it easier to bring McCann in as a pinch hitter.

    The article didn’t really talk about the fact that having McCann off the bench to hit in a critical spot in the game is a potential benefit of starting Ross over him. Unless, of course, you truly believe that McCann’s currently as bad as the recent performance indicates.

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    • Brian says:

      Rosters change between the wild card game and the divisional round. Could make for really interesting bullpen management.

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  17. Brian says:

    This has to mostly be about McCann being hurt moreso than anything about Ross. You have to think that McCann will bounce back from this year to one of the better catchers in the league. His BABIP was almost 60 points lower than his career average. His K% and BB% was not appreciably different this year. Neither were his LD%, GB%, and FB%. His contact rates look good all around and he posted the lowest swinging strike % of his career. That all screams a lot of bad luck in addition to being banged up. He probably just needs a chance to hit the reset button. Not sure if a few consecutive days off will allow for that, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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  18. How do you like them apples?!?!

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