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Free Agent Bargain: Dave Ross

As we move behind the plate for today’s free agent bargain, we take a look at a guy with one of the most inconsistent track records of any player in baseball – Dave Ross. Take a look at his seasonal batting lines:

2003: .258/.336/.556, 140 PA
2004: .170/.253/.291, 190 PA
2005: .240/.279/.392, 138 PA
2006: .255/.353/.579, 296 PA
2007: .203/.271/.399, 348 PA
2008: .225/.369/.352, 182 PA

That’s a weird set of numbers. In 2003 and 2006, Ross was pretty close to the best hitting catcher alive. In 2004, 2005, and 2007, he was replacement level. In 2008, he abandoned his normal skillset, hitting for about half as much power as usual but walking twice as often. That made him a decent player, but nothing like what you’d expect from his historical record.

So, what do we make of Ross going forward?

His contact problems are always going to depress his batting avearage – when you’ve got a 30% K%, you’re just not going to hit for much of an average. Even with the inconsistency, we can be sure that Ross is going to strike out a lot and not hit for much of an average. His value lies entirely in his secondary skills.

As for the ridiculous walk rate he displayed last year, that seems to be a direct response to a change in approach. Over the last four years, Ross has cut back significantly in how often he swings, seeing his Swing% go from 50.96% in 2005 to 42.74% last year. Despite a big cutback in how often he swings, he’s still making contact at essentially the same rate, so he’s not just staring at hittable strikes. It seems like that his 12% BB% over the last three years is more likely to continue than for him to revert back to his free swinging ways of 2003 to 2005.

So, what about the power? His ISO the last three years are .324, .197, and .126. Not exactly trending the right way, especially for a catcher who will be 32 next year. However, if we were looking for evidence that he wasn’t hitting the ball hard anymore, his career high 24.5% LD% in 2008 seems to rule that out. He just hit a lot of doubles instead of home runs last year, which naturally drove down his slugging marks. But considering that 12 of his 32 hits were still extra base knocks, it seems unlikely that his power is just disappearing at a rapid rate.

The Marcel projection system seems to be in agreement with these assessments, pegging Ross as a .232/.330/.421 hitter in 291 plate appearances next year. While the average is low, the secondary skills are still very strong, and project Ross as an above average hitting catcher for 2009. Not bad for a guy who was released outright in August.

There are quite a few teams who could use some added punch from behind the plate in 2009. If they can get over their obsession with batting average, Dave Ross could be a very low cost, short term option to provide some walks and power at a position where both are rare.