Putting Ross Into Perspective

A couple of years ago, I wondered why David Ross was taking such small contracts to back up Brian McCann in Atlanta when he seemed to be good enough to start elsewhere. Whether it was a lack of interest from other teams or Ross’ desire to stay in Atlanta, it puzzled me. When he was eligible for free agency again this season, I figured he would probably just stay in in Atlanta as he had before, since he appeared disinclined to play hardball with his employers at contract time.

However things turned out behind closed doors in the meetings that did or did not happen, Ross surprised many people by reportedly signing a two-year, $6.2 million contract with the Red Sox this weekend. Why the Braves let him go and the Red Sox are both a bit puzzling, but, as we will see, Ross, the seemingly eternal backup, compares favorably to a good number of starting catchers in the league.

One might think that it is obvious that not many teams would not want to pay a backup catcher $3 million a year. However, as I discussed in the previously-mentioned post, Ross is not just any backup, and that really hasn’t changed since 2010. In 2012, Ross had his fourth season in a row of above-average offense production at 109 wRC+. It is worth remembering that from 2009-2012 Ross only had 663 plate appearances total, so plenty of regression is needed. He is also going to turn 36 in March.

However, even taking all of that into account, he probably still projects as about a league-average hitter, which is very good for a catcher. Moreover, by most measures, Ross has been above-average defensively, including pitch framing. One might point out that recently he has only been playing about 60 games a year. Despite the limited playing time, he has been putting up 1.5-2 wins in each of those seasons. That is pretty impressive relative to other catchers getting more playing time. That is easily worth three million dollars or so on the free agent market.

Atlanta’s particular situation is curious, though. Yes, they have Brian McCann. But McCann just finished a season in which injuries plagued him to such an extent that he was decidedly out-hit by Ross (McCann finished 2012 with a career-worst 86 wRC+). McCann (a strangely underrated player in prior years) still projects to be clearly better than Ross, but with his health a bit uncertain and Ross being able to put up as many as two wins in only 60 games when McCann is healthy, it seems at least a bit odd to be stingy with $3 million dollars. That is not to say that the Braves might not have another plan in mind for that money, it just feels strange for the Braves to be letting Ross walk right after the way McCann’s 2012 went.

While Ross appears as if he would be a good fit for a number of teams, the Red Sox do not seem to be one of them. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not a world-beater, as his contact problems largely offset his power, and he is not a defensive wizard, either. Saltalamacchia is also due for an arbitration raise that will likely earn him more than Ross in 2013. Still, the difference may not be that huge.

If the plan is simply to have Saltalamacchia and Ross split time behind the plate, on the surface that makes sense. Saltalamacchia’s problems against southpaws would enable efficient platooning. However, that the Red Sox also have a promising young catcher in Ryan Lavarnway, and teams making noises about rebuilding usually do not invest heavily in somewhat redundant catchers in their mid-30s. This does not necessarily mean that the Red Sox are down on Lavarnway. Perhaps they think he just needs a bit more time in the minors, given that he did not exactly take the league by storm in 2012.

The other option would be to trade Saltalamacchia and have Ross be a veteran mentor who is actually useful in baseball games, as opposed to the sort of player usually associated with that role. As with the Braves, there is probably something other than the obvious going on beneath the surface, but that does not mean that we plebes are not entitled to scratch our heads.

Semi-Relevant Epilogue

As an epilogue, want to reflect on just how good David Ross is relative to his reputation as a “backup” by looking at some other nominal starting catchers around baseball who I do not think are better, or in many cases, even as good as Ross. This is not to say that these teams should have signed Ross. Rather, this is a challenge to myself, as I have speculated that there are about 10 teams for whom Ross would be an upgrade over their current projected starter.

[I will mostly be assuming fairly equal playing time. This is not really fair, as Ross has only played about 60 games in most recent seasons, but even then it is pretty close. Remember, in that time he has managed to almost be a two-win player the last few seasons, even in that limited playing time, 60 games of Ross and the rest manned by replacement-level scrubs are almost average. And hey, Ross is an old guy, give an old guy a break!]

Starting close to his new home, I think that David Ross might currently be the second-best catcher in the American League East. Matt Wieters a good hitter and maybe the best defensive catcher in the American League, but other than that, the East’s pickings are slim until Lavarnway and Toronto’s Travis D’Arnaud become full-time major leaguers. Jose Molina may be the best pitch-framer in baseball, but Ross’s superiority with the bat (and probably with the other aspects of catcher defense) makes him the better overall player. Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia is okay and is still young, but Ross has clearly out-hit him, and even if Arencibia isn’t quite as bad behind the plate as some think, there is a pretty big gap between him and Ross. The Yankees probably are not going to start 2013 with Chris Stewart behind the plate, but, though this might be controversial, I do not think Russell Martin is really any better than Ross. That one might be close.

That makes three teams (not counting Boston) for whom Ross would be as good or better than their projected 2013 starter. How many more? Ross is better than either of the Marlins’ catchers: John Buck or Rob Brantley. I would take Ross over the Mets’ Josh Thole and the Astros’ Jason Castro, too. Pittsburgh’s Michael McKenry is not as good as Ross, as far as I can see. Neither are Oakland’s Derek Norris or George Kottaras. That is eight. I am not sure that I would say that the Angels’ Chris Iannetta is worse than Ross, but I am not sure he is better.

That was just a fun, speculative exercise, do not take it too seriously. Without digging too hard, I was able to come up with nine teams for whom “backup” David Ross would be just as good as, and, in most cases, better than their projected 2013 starter. Whatever Boston decides to do, they have themselves a good player at a bargain. Atlanta is just hoping they do not miss him too badly.

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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.

14 Responses to “Putting Ross Into Perspective”

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  1. Braves Fan says:

    I’m depressed.

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  2. Domenic says:

    Is it worth noting that Ross has had a strong reverse platoon split over these past four seasons? By my admittedly haphazard calculations, his OPS is around .870 against RHP over that time, as compared to roughly .730 against southpaws – and this split has only grown starker over the past two seasons. That’s a positive, I think, should the Red Sox seek to make him the full-time starter … but that doesn’t appear to be the plan.

    We are definitely dealing with very small sample sizes, but there is enough of a pattern that I’m not that sure he can be counted on as a weapon against LHP as a part of a platoon.

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    • Ian R. says:

      The thing about those platoon splits is that we’re talking about basically one season’s worth of PA, total, so there are serious sample size issues. It’s also possible that the Braves have deliberately played Ross against especially tough left-handers, since McCann is too good and too durable to be benched against every LHP. The quality of the pitchers he faces would affect Ross’ platoon numbers substantially.

      Over his career, Ross has his lefties and righties basically the same. Still doesn’t scream platoon player, but neither does it scream reverse split.

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      • Ian R. says:

        A quick listing of LHP who Ross faced three or more times in 2012: Ross Detwiler (7 PA), Paul Maholm, Gio Gonzalez, Chris Capuano and Madison Bumgarner (6 PA each), Jon Niese (5 PA), Cliff Lee and Wade LeBlanc (4 PA), Eric Stults, CC Sabathia, David Price, John Lannan, Cole Hamels, Wei-Yin Chen and Mark Buehrle (3 PA). Miniscule sample size, obviously, but that’s a collection of mostly good-to-great pitchers who would hold anyone’s platoon split down.

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      • Domenic says:

        This is certainly true, but we are focusing on the last four years in our assumption that he can be an above-average hitter in a semi-full-time role. His strong numbers over that time have come from his ability to batter same-side pitching.

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  3. TKay says:

    Wanted the Pirates to get him so badly, but thought he would cost 2yr/$14M. I think he’d be worth that. Can’t believe he got away for so cheap.

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  4. Darren says:

    Salty made $2.5 mil last year. He basically repeated his 2011 numbers and now has another year of service time. Going just by the 40/60/80 rule of arb values, he gets $3.3 mil in 2013. But I’m guessing that 25 HRs and a second year solidifying himself as a MLer means he gets closer to $5 mil. That’s quite a bit more than Ross.

    Salty is younger, but the Sox pitchers don’t seem to be doing well with him behind the plate. I’ll take Ross, use the money elsewhere, and see if I can get value for Salty.

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  5. Josh says:

    Piece is in need of some proofreading.

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    • Bob says:

      This article has so many typos that there is even an extra “a” in the author’s name.

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    • bstar says:

      Yeah, this one might be a new low for the editorial staff at FG.

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    • Paul Clarke says:

      Some proof-reading coming up:

      Why the Braves let him go and the Red Sox are both a bit puzzling

      Missing “why” before “Red Sox” (this one might be arguable, by I found it very confusing as written).

      One might think that it is obvious that not many teams would not want to pay a backup catcher $3 million a year

      One too many “nots”.

      However, that the Red Sox also have a promising young catcher in Ryan Lavarnway,

      Superfluous “that”.

      As an epilogue, want to reflect

      Missing “I” before “want”.

      Matt Wieters a good hitter

      Missing “is” after “Wieters”.

      would be as good or better than

      Missing “as” after “good”.

      I hope this helps. Other than that, a fun post, and you could add the Rangers to the list of teams where Ross would be an upgrade

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  6. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    Maybe it’s because he’s 36 years old and hasn’t had more than 200 plate appearances in the past 5 years?

    Just a thought…

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  7. Jon L. says:

    I think the Braves could very reasonably have let him go based on the fact that he’s a part-time player making way over the major league minimum at an age when most player’s skills are in rapid decline. I guess the Red Sox want someone they believe will provide reliable performance in the short run in a limited or (if Lavarnway is not ready) expanded role.

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  8. Ginger says:

    Don’t understand this move. Ross is too good to trade, and McCann, as much as I like him, is having problems.

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