2015 Stats: 72 G, 182 PA, .176/.267/.252, .203 TAv, -0.3 WARP
Year in Review: We can now all officially exhale and say that, no, David Ross wasn’t exactly what many hoped for on the field in his debut year with the Cubs. Yes, we know what Ross can do, and he wasn’t signed last offseason to be the home-run clubbing behemoth of the lineup, but it still was a sub-par season for him—even when knowing Ross’ skill set.
After peaking at .309 in 2010, Ross’ TAv has been in steady decline over the last five years, all the way down to .203 in 2015. While he was hitting the ball in the air more often in 2015 (his rate jump 9.1 percentage points to 49.5 in 2015), Ross, hardly known for his power, was only able to slug one out of the park this past summer, the only time he failed to get multiple homers in a season when playing over a dozen games. His 2.1 percent HR/FB rate was quite a drop in production from a player who, despite the poor numbers, has posted rates in the mid to upper teens since 2011, and had previously never delivered one lower than 5.3 percent in his extensive career.
Although this is somewhat displeasing information, keep in mind that these numbers are not why Ross was brought aboard in the first place. The Cubs were willing to take on his anemic offensive performance in favor of his other contributions, which include his stellar framing abilities (more on that in a moment), but it probably isn’t helping his case much to take already dull offensive numbers and make them even less appealing.
As far as Ross’ contribution behind the plate, he is known to be one of the elite pitch framers in baseball, though even this area of his skills merited him unsatisfactory marks—at least to the standards he’d set previously in his career—in 2015. Ross garnered an extra 37 strikes behind the plate, good for 5.5 extra runs from framing. Not too shabby, though that happens to be a career-low mark in extra runs from framing to date. Ross was actually in the negative in passed balls/wild pitches (-1.1), as well as blocking runs (-0.3), though both were a slight improvement over his 2014 numbers. These numbers have been inconsistent throughout his career, but posting in the negative is never good when something is considered to be one of your crowning skills. Overall, as shown by his negative WARP, his defensive contributions didn’t make up for his meager production at the plate this season, giving Ross an overall poorer-than-expected debut season on the North Side.
Looking Ahead: At this point, the major concern with Ross doesn’t really have a lot to do with finances (Ross will only be earning $2.5 million in 2016), but rather with him “taking up” a spot in the lineup. How long can a team survive having to forego quality production from the pitcher spot, as well as the catcher’s spot at least once every fifth game? At this point, the production we are seeing from Ross is only a few hairs shy of being in the same category as pitcher-quality offense, and if the defense he provides is only going to be slightly above average, Ross’ name in the lineup, and we’re strictly speaking on-field value here, is essentially a liability to the team.
Ross spent 402 1/3 innings of the season behind the plate—much of it as Jon Lester’s personal catcher—which is a solid chunk of time for someone who has had such a poor offensive season. With the steady decline in offense that we’ve witnessed from Ross over the last half decade, expecting any sort of significant improvement at the plate in 2016 would be folly. While Matt Trueblood rightfully points out that the Cubs need to monitor starting catcher Miguel Montero’s workload to ensure he’s fresh deep into the season, a little less of Ross may also be needed; which means potentially committing to Kyle Schwarber as the backstop a few times a month, though I’m not entirely sold on that being the answer.
None of this is what any of us want to hear, especially myself, as I have been quite high on Ross since last offseason. I was a large advocate of acquiring Ross because of his ability to help his team gain runs behind the plate, if not so much at the plate, as well as his much needed but so often undervalued clubhouse presence. And that was certainly the one area Ross did not disappoint as he provided veteran leadership and a presence throughout the clubhouse during a critical time for the organization with so many young faces (faces whose positive development were imperative to both the club’s present and future) arriving on the scene seemingly every day. Even if we see less time from Ross behind the plate, he will still be in the dugout and in the clubhouse every day providing that presence—perhaps prompting him to take on a different role in baseball later on in his career.
Ross has also helped seamlessly usher in the era of Lester on the North Side, and though that may not be something that is valued highly among fans, we must ask the question: What could Lester’s season have potentially looked like had he not had his familiar battery mate with him along the way? Not everyone may agree with the concept of a personal catcher, but the fact is Lester had one, and bringing him along for the ride likely benefited in ways we may not have been able to truly measure. And the fact is, as much as I’ve discussed Ross’ dip in defense, he did help curtail some of the much-publicized issues Lester had holding runners on base by picking off six baserunners (this after accumulating just 10 in his previous 13 seasons).
So the bottom line for Ross isn’t exactly cut and dry—there are a lot intangible aspects that go into defending Ross’ place on the roster, and perhaps this is one of the reasons I find myself so fond of him. It’s not every day that you find yourself defending the roster retention of a player who is nearly expected to put up a sub-.200 batting average. But the fact is Ross does have value. Ask anyone within that organization (as ESPN’s Wayne Drehs did in this enlightening piece) or anyone who spent any time in that clubhouse, and they’ll tell you without hesitation just how important Ross was to the Cubs 2015 season. It’s not going to show in the numbers, but that immeasurable quality that Ross possesses, that ability to ensure that every player in the dugout is accountable for their actions and doing everything they can to help the team win is something many believe is critical to this team’s success.
Lead photo courtesy of Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports