David Ross: The New Gregg Zaun

I’m not sure who started it (perhaps Rany Jazayerli?), but a few years ago many internet writers began to call Gregg Zaun the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher. However, as people looked more closely. they began to realize that a catcher who was close to league average offensively (Zaun has a career 94 wRC+) and non-horrible defensively would actually make a Pretty Good Starting Catcher. The Toronto Blue Jays noticed and were the only team to really give Zaun a full season of playing time in 2005. By that time, Zaun was in his mid-30s, durability issues started to set in, and he’s never seen that much playing time again. However, the nerdosphere’s like affair with Zaun continued, and although he’s been more of a half-time player since then, he’s hit well enough to be an above average player (relative to his playing time).

Zaun’s 2010 with the Brewers ended early due to injury, and it’s an open question whether he’ll come back for his age 40 season in 2011. But there may be a new candidate to take up his role: Atlanta’s David Ross. Of course, barring unforeseen circumstances befalling Brian McCann, it makes sense that Ross isn’t going to be a starter in for the Braves any time soon. Despite his backup role, however, it seems to me that he could ably start for someone.

Ross has a good defensive reputation, and both DRS and TotalZone rate him as above-average. But let’s leave that aside and focus on his bat. We know that that most catchers don’t hit well. One of the handy things about wOBA is that it is just linear weights in rate-stat form, so we can convert it to runs above/below average. At FanGraphs, the full-season positional adjustment for catcher is +12.5 runs. So prorated 700 PA, to be average a catcher has to be worth -12.5 runs or better to be average or better (assuming average defense). In the 2010 run environment (.322 league average wOBA), that means a defensively-average catcher with about a .300 wOBA will be league average.

How does Ross stack up? Over the last three seasons (2008-present), he has a .349 wOBA (.249/.369/.421), which clearly puts him above the .300 “average line” we set above, as well as better than many starters over the same period, some of are rightly considered to be good players: Russell Martin (.324), Carlos Ruiz (.323), Yadier Molina (.319), and Kurt Suzuki (.315). While Ross’s 2009 power outburst (.234 ISO) was likely far above his true talent, and he’s probably had a fair bit of BABIP luck the last two season (.341 BABIP in both 2009 and 2010 so far), Ross has also thrived on an very good walk rate (15.1% from 2008-present) due to his consistent ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. Of course, there’s a sample size issue here, as Ross hasn’t even had 500 plate appearances total the last three seasons. A good bit of regression (particularly for BABIP) is called for here. After doing so, ZiPS RoS projects Ross’s current true talent as a .322 wOBA hitter — about MLB average, which, as a catcher makes him an above-average player.

In a league where Bengie Molina and Jason Kendall have full-time jobs, one wonders why more teams didn’t offer Ross a bit more money and playing time when he was last a free agent. His .286 wOBA in 2007 probably didn’t help, and perhaps teams felt he couldn’t handle even a half-time workload. However, in 2006 he played almost as much and had a .386 wOBA. Whatever the case may be, we probably won’t get to see what Ross could do with more playing time. Not only is he playing behind McCann, but the Braves have Ross locked up through 2012 at a bit more than $1.5 million a year — a bargain given that Ross still been delivering them about a win a season in less than 200 PAs. If McCann does go down for a while, Atlanta knows they won’t suffer too much in the hands of the new Practically Perfect Backup Catcher Who Could Probably Be Starting Somewhere.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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Anon21
Guest
Anon21
5 years 9 months ago

Locking up Ross through 2012 was a very smart, low-profile move by Frank Wren and the Braves’ FO. If only they’d been as sensible about their trades earlier in the season…

kbertling353
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kbertling353
5 years 9 months ago

agreed on both points

wren scares me like hell when i hear a braves trade rumor

The Duder
Guest
The Duder
5 years 9 months ago

Hahaha. Nice article.

Alex Remington
Member
5 years 9 months ago

He may not be Jack Z, but Wren has made quite a few of these smart, low-profile moves over the last couple years. Watch out for the Braves!

kbertling353
Guest
kbertling353
5 years 9 months ago

and then he trades for ankiel, farnsworth, alex gonzalez, nate mclouth ,derek lee, and melky cabrera

Temo
Member
Temo
5 years 9 months ago

He gave up next to nothing for Ankiel, Farnsworth, Lee, and McLouth. Melky was a throw in to complement the real trade piece (Vizcaino), and we all know the story with Yunel Escobar. (Note please that A-Gon has outproduced Yunel since the trade)

None of those were horrible trades.

that guy
Guest
that guy
5 years 9 months ago

let’s not forget wren’s first real move as GM.

(an aging) Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez (used in McLouth trade.)

Talk about a steal…

Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
5 years 9 months ago

This articles states what I have been thinking since at least 2009. Ross is a better catcher than what many other teams are running out there on a daily basis. I have no idea why there wasn’t more interest in him as a starter. Obviously the Braves have McCann, but his bat would be good enough to run out there occasionally at first base as a backup on the side. He certainly would be no worse than Hinske playing the position.

Nitram Odarp
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Nitram Odarp
5 years 9 months ago

I think one thing that we may be missing is that Ross loves the role of a backup catcher. Can we really blame him? Being a starting catcher in the major leagues takes a huge toll on your body, both now and especially later. Ross doesn’t have to deal with health issues but still gets paid more than a lot of starters. He also seems to genuinely enjoy working with McCann on improving his defense, and I could see him eying a future job as an instructor, coach, or possibly even a manager. In some ways, working as a backup catcher now may better prepare him for that.

TK
Guest
TK
5 years 9 months ago

This is an interesting point. It’s definitely non-obvious but also very much rational. I’d say the largest factors that went into Ross’ decision to accept the two year extension were the ones you’ve outlined as well as the fact that “one in the hand beats two in the bush.” Getting a guaranteed payday of millions (even 3) is hard to pass up (for a guy that isn’t set for life) knowing it could conceivably not exist after the season.

Temo
Member
Temo
5 years 9 months ago

If you need further proof that Ross’s bat hasn’t been a fluke, note that Cox has used him as a righty pinch hitter on occasion this season. Those that know Cox know how much he hates using the back-up catcher as a PH, especially when the emergency catcher is Matt Diaz. He thinks that highly of Ross’s bat.

Jason B
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Jason B
5 years 9 months ago

Does David Ross like Rush, too?

Andrew
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Andrew
5 years 9 months ago

Ross with a triple and a grand slam tonight. not bad

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5 years 7 months ago

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