The David Ross Effect

*All stats are through September 1, unless otherwise noted

The Babe Ruth Impression

In recent seasons, a late July swoon on the North Side would hardly be cause for panic, as teams already going nowhere had little else to lose. In 2015, however, the post All-Star break malaise was putting a damper on the most exciting and promising Chicago Cubs season in nearly a decade.

On July 26th, the Philadelphia Phillies were putting the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. That day’s loss would drop the Cubs to five games over .500 for the first time in a month, and reduce their playoff odds to 43.1 percent. The home sweep at the hands of one of baseball’s worst teams was the final, cruel punctuation on a 5-11 stretch.

Trailing 11-4 heading into the ninth inning, Joe Maddon called on David Ross to pitch the ninth inning. Two months earlier, Ross had pitched a scoreless eighth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers. Against the Phillies, Ross retired the side in order on eight pitches. Leading off in the bottom of the ninth, Ross hit his first home run in a Cubs uniform. It did not jump start a rally, though, and the Cubs would lose 11-5,

After the game, Maddon compared Ross to Babe Ruth. Ross seemed to enjoy himself, saying after the game, “It was fun, light hearted, and doesn’t mean a whole lot to me other than that it was a lot of fun. It helped our bullpen save an inning down there. It put a smile on a couple guys faces, as well as mine.”

The Cubs would win the next day—on a two-out, walk-off, two-run homer by Kris Bryant—and embark on a 21-6 run that would vault their playoff odds to 95 percent. Of course, Ross’ ninth inning personal heroics and the levity they provided are not the reason the Cubs went on a streak that would place them among the best teams in baseball. The team could point to a myriad of measurable reasons for their tremendous month—Jake Arietta’s historic August, Dexter Fowler’s resurgence, and the arrival of Kyle Schwarber—before arriving at Ross’ fun, but ultimately meaningless ninth inning in a blowout loss.

What it did demonstrate, though, is what teammates, coaches, and national media have spent a decade claiming: Ross is a good clubhouse guy who has a positive effect on any team in which he is a part.

Even in a game built upon myth and mystique, the role of “good clubhouse guy” is exalted to a special strata. Jonny Gomes has been a slightly above-average major-league player, but a Google search for “Jonny Gomes clubhouse leader” brings 89,100 results, even if he has to occasionally tell reporters to mention his clubhouse presence. But Gomes is likely headed to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season with his third different team, and his clubhouse presence will be discussed more frequently than his OPS against left-handed pitchers.

Even among good clubhouse guys, Ross seems to be held in special regard. Former teammates sing his praises, saying he will be a successful manager the moment he retires. On national television, John Kruk and Curt Schilling have discussed his clubhouse presence, the effect he has on pitchers, and his future managerial bonafides. When he signs with a new team, Hall-of-Famers weigh in, commenting “There’s no question the pitchers are going to love throwing to him.”

While I was working on this piece, BP’s Russell A. Carelton wrote a typically excellent article pondering the question of whether veteran players (over age 35)  have an effect on the team’s younger players. Do “good clubhouse guys” really have positive influence on the team? Russell concludes they most likely do, and Ross, now 38 years old, certainly fits the category. For this piece, however, I wanted to dig into the statistical benefit Ross provides a team.

We know for nearly a decade that Ross has been on winning teams, including the 2015 Cubs. How much does Ross contribute to his team’s success? For this piece, I want to cut through the intangibles and clubhouse presence offered by Ross. Basically I wanted to answer a few basic questions: Does David Ross have a real, measurable effect on a team and a pitching staff? If he does, is it greater than other backup catchers? What has Ross contributed to the Cubs? Put simply, I want to know is there a David Ross Effect?

Disappearing Offense

If Ross has an affect on a team, it’s no longer with his bat.

Now, there was a time when Ross was above-average offensively. From 2006 through 2012, Ross hit .245/.336/.457 with a .212 ISO and 12.1 percent walk rate. He hit 21 home runs in 2007 (when he was a three win player by bWARP), and then followed that up with 17 in 2008.

Since the start of 2013, though, he has hit just .195/.280/.341 with a .230 True Average (TAv). Through August 31st, 54 catchers have at least 400 plate appearances since Opening Day 2013. Of the 54, Ross ranks 46th in OPS (.617), 49th in wRC+ (58), and last in strikeout rate (35.0 percent).

This is not to say Ross is not capable of producing some timely hits. His second-inning home run in the 2012 NL Wild Card game gave Atlanta an early 2-0 lead over St. Louis (the Braves would lose 6-3). In the 2013 World Series at St. Louis, Ross’s seventh inning RBI double in Game Five broke a 1-1 tie, and the Red Sox would proceed to take a 3-2 series lead.

After reviewing Ross’ offensive numbers, I think we can say definitively that, despite some recent postseason success, Ross’s bat has not been his value to teams. So, where do we look now?

The Turnaround

For starters, we wanted to see if, at the most basic, surface levels, does a team improve when Ross arrives? To do this, we looked at the last four teams Ross has joined for any changes in their win-loss record and team ERA.

Season Before Ross Ross’s First Season
W-L Record Team ERA W-L Record Team ERA
Cincinnati Reds 2005 73-89 5.15 2006 80-82 4.51
Atlanta Braves 2008 72-90 4.46 2009 86-76 3.57
Boston Red Sox 2012 69-93 4.70 2013 97-65 3.79
Cubs 2014 73-89 4.00 2015 75-56* 3.59
*PECOTA Projected Standings has Cubs at 95 wins as of September 2nd. For the purposes of this exercise, we will give the Cubs 95 wins (congrats, Cubs!)

As you can see, teams most definitely improve when Ross arrives in a new metropolis. On average teams have increased by about 18 games and team ERA has dropped by nearly three-quarters of a run (0.71). Obviously, there are several personnel factors, both players and coaches, that contributed to the team’s and pitcher’s improvement, but the fact remains: when Ross joins a clubhouse, the team and pitching staff have improved. Now the question becomes, what role does he, as a backup catcher, play in individual pitchers and  the team’s overall performance?

The Backups (Not a Sequel to The Benchwarmers)

Early in the 2014 season, John Lackey said of Ross, “The best thing about pitching to David is the trust factor. He does his homework on the hitters, he knows what he’s doing, he’s been back there a ton of times. He just makes it easier. Whatever pitch he throws down, you feel confident because he did the work and research to do it.” Is this sense of confidence borne out in the results for pitchers?  For that, we have to dig into the numbers.

Beginning in 2009, Ross has spent more than a half decade as the primary backup catcher for teams perennially in playoff contention. To find out, I wanted to look at three things for each season from 2009 through 2015:

  1. The performance of the starting pitcher for whom Ross caught the highest percentage of innings pitched. Does the pitcher have runs saved and perform better throwing to Ross? The pitcher had to rank top five among starters in innings pitched.
  2. Ross’ performance as backup catcher year-by-year compared to the league average for team’s number two catchers in those seasons, as well as where Ross ranked among the league’s number two catchers.
  3. Performances of Cubs pitchers with Ross behind the plate.

For the first part, I looked at BP’s CSAA statistics, which is defined as “the total runs gained or lost from the net strike zone created by (1) batters faced, (2) umpires faced, and (3) the catcher receiving the pitcher. Of the three factors, catcher framing is by far the biggest contributor to this.” Does the pitcher for whom Ross catches the highest percentage of innings have runs saved by pitch framing? Also, just as a quick and dirty comparison, I examined the difference in FIP between Ross and the team’s starting catcher. Below are the starting pitchers for whom Ross has caught the highest percentage of innings in each season:

Season Pitcher % of Innings Caught CSAA Difference in FIP w/ Ross vs. Starting Catcher
2015 Jon Lester 87.1% -0.87 1.93
2014 Jon Lester 56.9% -1.12 -1.03
2013 Clay Buchholz 38.5% -0.89 -0.54
2012 Randall Delgado 47.5% -2.57 0.16
2011 Tim Hudson 45.1% -7.45 -0.84
2010 Tim Hudson 30.3% 0.81 -0.27
2009 Kenshin Kawakami 30.0% -1.91 -0.19

Like me, your first thought might been there are a couple impressive pitchers on that list (Hudson and Lester) and another who had a career-best season (Buccholz), and they would have had success no matter the backup catcher. However, in six of the seven seasons, pitchers had runs saved based on CSAA. In five of seven seasons, the pitcher’s FIP improved with Ross.

While it is difficult to gauge the effect a catcher’s pitch calling has on a game, these individual pitchers saw positive results in seasons Ross was the backup catcher. There is a commonality among the pitchers above as it relates to their work with Ross.  Lester, Hudson, and Buchholz each increased their four-seam fastball usage when Ross joined the team (ranging from to two to seven percent).

Additionally, during this period, pitchers consistently benefited from his pitch framing abilities. In every season from 2009-2014, Ross has ranked in top three in StatCorner Catcher Report’s oStr% (percentage of pitches, caught outside the strike zone, called a strike) among catchers who see at least 2,500 pitches. As of this writing, he ranks fourth at 9.7 percent this season.

So, we know Ross steals strikes and runs with his receiving and framing skills. Next, with massive assistance from the brilliant and invaluable Rob McQuowan & Harry Pavalidis at BP, I analyzed how Ross compared to the league’s other backup catchers on a year-by-year basis from 2009 through 2014. I elected to review it year-by-year to catch (pun most definitely intended) how Ross’ numbers evolved both as the Braves pitching staff changed and he changed organizations. Obviously, some factors help Ross’ numbers (catching prime-of-his-career Lester), but some hurt (the dumpster fire that was the 2014 Red Sox)

One thing to keep in mind as you review the numbers below is that since 2009, aside from 2014 but including this season, Ross’s pitching staffs have finished in the top six in their respective leagues in ERA and FIP. However, in that time period, Ross has not backed up a catcher who has finished top 10 in Fielding Bible voting.

As you will see below, on a year-by-year basis he ranks among the top backup catchers in WHIP, FIP, ERA, OBP, SLP, and TAv, and often the numbers are MUCH BETTER than the average for the league’s backup catchers. Of course, these statistics are not perfect to gauge a catcher’s performance, but taken together, they do help demonstrate the effectiveness of a catcher over seven seasons with three different organizations.


Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 23.7 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 27.9 percent

Staff ERA Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.038

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.007


Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.229 1.403 3.59 4.40 3.43 4.49 .313 .335 .384 .422 .246 .263
Rank Among Backups 3rd 2nd 3rd 4th 2nd



Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 22.3 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 29.3 percent

Staff ERA Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.275

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.021


Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers ROSS 2nd Catchers ROSS 2nd Catchers ROSS 2nd Catchers ROSS 2nd Catchers
1.187 1.351 3.46 4.15 3.15 4.17 .300 .326 .344 .407 .238 .263
Rank Among Backups 2nd 1st 2nd 1st 1st

In terms of pitcher’s performance with him behind the plate, this was the best season of Ross’s career. Tommy Hanson posted the best DRA of his career, and Tim Hudson posted his third best.


Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 25.3 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 26.7 percent

Staff FIP Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: 0.054

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.007


Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.194 1.321 3.49 3.98 3.11 3.90 .300 .322 .353 .397 .242 .260
Rank Among Backups 5th 4th 5th 4th 5th


Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 29.0 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 28.8 percent

Staff ERA Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.175

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: .003

Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.205 1.323 3.66 4.05 3.59 4.12 .304 .321 .386 .408 .246 .262
Rank Among Backups 6th 6th 6th 7th 4th


Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 19.2 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 28.1 percent

Staff FIP Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.247

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.013


Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.234 1.304 3.67 3.95 3.12 3.91 0.319 0.319 0.368 0.397 0.248 0.262
Rank Among Backups 6th 2nd 7th 5th 6th

*Ross missed more than 60 games due to a concussion.


Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 28.6 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 25.9 percent

Staff FIP Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.378

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.014


Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.305 1.277 3.68 3.75 4.00 3.65 .322 .314 .386 .382 .259 .260
Rank Among Backups 18th 21st 16th 17th 12th

*Christian Vazquez caught five more games than Ross, making him the primary backup, but I still compared Ross to the league’s number two catchers. 

The 2014 Red Sox staff was a trainwreck, finishing second to last in ERA and third to last in FIP.  However, the staff’s FIP was a third of a run lower with Ross behind the plate, and Ross’s FIP and TAv was still better than the league average for number two catchers. Ross placed among the bottom half of the league’s backups, but the Red Sox staff still pitched better when he was behind the plate.

On average, from 2009-2014, by TAv, Ross was 9-10 percent better than the league average for primary backup catchers. Additionally, his average FIP was a half run lower (0.51).

Put more concisely,  pitchers on Ross’ teams have put up significantly better numbers with Ross behind the dish. While he has not backed up a murderer’s row of defensive catchers (Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, AJ Pierzynski, Miguel Montero), on average, a staff’s ERA has improved by nearly half a run (0.432), FIP has improved a fifth of a run (0.205), and TAv has improved by 10 points from his starting catchers.

Ross and the Cubs

So, Lester entered 2015 with a tremendous track record, despite 2014. However, many still felt Ross was brought aboard solely to be Lester’s personal catcher. As one beat writer commented, “For now it makes Lester a $160 million pitcher, counting Ross’ deal.” Obviously, Ross and Lester have become linked since the start 2013, and with Ross catching 87 percent of Lester’s innings. it’s difficult to separate Ross’ impact from Lester. As we mentioned above, Ross has certainly benefited from pitching to prime career Lester, who currently ranks ninth in the NL in FIP (3.07). A quick look at the numbers, though, reveals Cubs pitchers improve with Ross catching.

What overall effect has Ross had on the Cubs this season? Based on the staff numbers, Ross appears to be his usual outstanding self.

Ross Percentage of Team’s PA’s Caught: 25.6 percent

League Average for Team’s 2nd Catchers: 27.9 percent

Staff FIP Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -0.373

Staff TAv Improvement/Regression from Starting Catcher: -.014

Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers Ross 2nd Catchers
1.199 1.302 3.19 4.00 3.89 4.05 .298 .318 .372 .410 .245 .263
Rank Among Backups 5th 2nd 7th 5th 6th

Below, are the four pitchers who have thrown the highest percentage of innings to Ross, and how those numbers compare to the team’s other catchers:

Jon Lester:

Ross 87.1% 3.55 1.247 6.3% 24.3% .259 .407
Other Catchers 12.9% 3.86 0.952 3.5% 27.1% .215 .291

It’s a small sample size, of course, but Lester’s numbers have been better with Montero. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Ross has caught exactly 70 percent of Lester’s innings pitched. Below is Lester’s pitch frequency from his first full season through 2013, and since Ross became his primary catcher:

2007-2013 2014-2015 Change in Pitch Frequency
Four-Seam 38.40% Four-Seam 41.45% +3.05 %
Cutter 23.35% Cutter 29.38% +6.03%
Curve 15.31% Curve 16.35% +1.04%
Sinker 13.79% Sinker 9.41% -4.38%
Change-Up 9.13% Change-Up 3.39% -5.74%

With Ross as his primary catcher, Lester has gone to his “big three” pitches—four-seam, cut, and curve—with more frequency. With Ross out, Montero caught a handful of Lester starts, but he has not deviated from Ross’ blueprint, as each start saw Lester within three percent of his season average for all five pitches.

Jake Arietta:

Ross 21.1% 1.86 1.060 8.9% 26.9% .196 .312
Other Catchers 78.9% 2.18 0.908 5.4% 26.8% .195 .290

Obviously, Arrieta has been just fine when Ross isn’t behind the plate, evidenced recently by Montero catching his no-hitter on August 30th. This season, Arrieta’s four-seam rate has dropped by 20 percent, while slider and sinker have each increased by 10 percent.

Hector Rondon:

Ross 31.0% 0.00 0.722 9.2% 24.6% .119 .136
Other Catchers 69.0% 2.25 1.100 6.0% 24.7% .237 .342

Rondon’s four-seam usage has decreased by 16 percent, but has slider rate has doubled to nearly 35 percent, and he has yet to allow an earned run pitching to Ross.

Pedro Strop:

Ross 30.4% 0.53 0.588 11.9% 33.9% .059 .078
Other Catchers 69.6% 3.92 1.154 11.7% 27.2% .190 .336

With Ross behind the plate. the team’s ERA is more than a full run better (1.21), FIP nearly a half run better (0.47), and TAv is 14 points lower than when Montero, Kyle Schwarber, Welington Castillo, and Tyler Teagarden handle the catching duties. His primary job might be to catch Lester, but Lester does not appear to be only pitcher benefiting from Ross.

The Creation of the Mystique, or How the Effect Goes Into Effect

If you’re still with us (damn, get a hobby, man), I wanted to ponder briefly how a respected career backup can build a national reputation. That is, how does a player worth just under 11 wins over parts of 14 seasons (career 10.8 bWARP), garner so much press and attention? My unscientific theory is it got to the next level during the 2013 World Series.

In 2013, Jarrod Saltalamacchia started 111 games for the Red Sox, hitting .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs and 40 doubles. He started nine of the first 13 postseason games. With Saltalamacchia as the primary catcher, the team won 97 games, their division, and the AL pennant. Offensively, though, Saltalamacchia had slumped in the playoffs and his errant throw led to the walk-off obstruction call in Game Three.

With the Red Sox facing a 2-1 deficit on the road in the World Series, John Farrell penciled Ross’ name into the starting lineup for Game Four, and then for the final two games of the series.

Ross, 36, hit .219/.298/.382 and started just 26 regular season games. He had missed more than two months with a concussion. And yet, the player who hit .167/.273/.271 against right-handed pitchers that season would get the start against Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha.

Ross would go 2-for-12 in the three games (including his Game Five RBI double mentioned above). However, the Cardinals scored just four runs over the final three games, and it was Ross who caught the final out of the World Series. National media outlets labeled Ross a “World Series hero” and a key to their title run. Granted, Saltalamacchia is not Yadier Molina, but did he perform demonstrably worse between Games Three and Four?

Pitching to Saltalamacchia, Lester had been historically dominant down the stretch and October. Lackey, who threw 78 percent of his regular-season innings to Saltalamacchia, had the best DRA (3.86) and FIP (2.23) of his career. In the span of three games, though, Ross became a “hero” and few in Boston voiced concern when the Red Sox let Saltalamacchia walk in free agency.

After Game Five, “good clubhouse guy” Jonny Gomes said of Ross “as good as he is as a catcher, he’s twice the teammate, twice the competitor, and we’re very lucky to have him.” 

Prior to the 2013 postseason, numbers seemed to dictate Ross had a well-earned a reputation as one of the game’s best backup catchers, no matter the organization or pitching staff , but sometimes mystique and reputation need an activating event.

The Verdict 

Does David Ross have a positive effect on a team and pitching staff? I would have to say yes.

True, Ross has been pitched to by quality pitchers since 2009 (Lester, Arrieta, Hudson, Buchholz, Craig Kimbrel, Uehara). And pitcher’s numbers are an imperfect measure of a catcher’s performance, but throughout Ross’s career, certain patterns have developed. Each season, pitching staffs have better numbers pitching to Ross than the team’s starting catcher, and his numbers consistently rank  him among the top of backup catchers in the league. Ross consistently ranks among the league’s very best at stealing strikes. He is not a miracle worker, of course, but he has a history of helping good pitchers and staffs become very good, and poor staffs approach average. 

Offensively, Ross has not been a productive major-league hitter since 2012, but he has continued to deliver timely extra-base hits in the postseason. And as we discussed at the top, a decade of anecdotal evidence from teammates, managers, coaches, and media suggest he is as great a “good clubhouse guy.”

When you add it all up—pitcher’s numbers with him behind the plate, clubhouse presence, big playoff moments—it’s hard to make the case against the David Ross Effect. 

Lead photo courtesy of Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports



Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username