David Ross had never caught a no hitter before last night, which is a bit of a surprise, given not just the length of his career, but also the pitchers he’s caught for across those years. Namely, Jon Lester for the better part of the recent years of his career. This year, he’s on a farewell tour of sorts, as he announced his retirement following the conclusion of the 2016 season. He hinted at it first in November of last year, and then just as spring training was starting, he confirmed his plans. Though he’ll not get a farewell tour on par with Derek Jeter, his teammates are documenting his final season on Instagram, something that seems indicative not just of those teammates, but the kind of guy Ross is, if he can inspire such a thing as a backup catcher who’s only played one full season in Chicago. But outside of that, Ross did have something he hoped for in his final act as a baseball player. Sure, a World Series of course, but he’s been there. He wanted to catch a no hitter. In an interview with 670 The Score’s Mully and Hanley on April 12, he expressed his desire to do that before his career was over (you can find the audio here).
Though I’m sure he hardly would have guessed that just a week or so later, he’d be fulfilling that dream, it seems apropos that it also came on a night that he shined not just in his work behind the plate calling the game for Jake Arrieta, but at the plate as well. Ross has amassed a 22.2 WARP in his 15 year career (not a perfect comparison, but for perspective, his catching counterpart Miguel Montero is at 30 WARP in 11 seasons), so he’s generally not considered a threat at the plate, to put it lightly. So much so that some groused at his role as Jon Lester’s personal catcher last season in particular, he’s since gradually demonstrated his worth to the team in a way that might not appear on his Baseball Prospectus player card. He did that in a big way last night, though so let’s take a look at the no hitter from his perspective.
It’s easy to see from just the box score that his night at the plate was one that stands among his career best. In five plate appearances, he hit safely twice (including a home run), drew a walk, drove in a run, and scored three times. His wOBA for the night was .733. In games where he’s had five plate appearances, he’s topped that number just 7 times, and the most recent was in 2012 while a member of the Atlanta Braves. Since joining the Cubs, the only other night that might rival this in terms of excitement was on July 26 of last year when he had one plate appearance, a home run, and also pitched the final inning. All in a day’s work.
Ross also ran the basepaths last night like a much younger man, and I think the pinnacle of his night, aside from the final out and ensuing celebration, probably came when he scored on a single hit by none other than Arrieta. This came in the 4th inning, and aided by a throwing error by pitcher Brandon Finnegan, Ross scampered across home plate for the Cubs’ fifth run of the night like a man ten years younger. Little did he know that, at the time, that would be less than a third of the runs they’d ultimately score, but Ross wasn’t done there. He’d also scored in the second inning on Dexter Fowler’s groundout, but in the sixth, he hit his first home run of the season on a 2-2 count off of Tim Melville—a shot to right center (You can see it at about the 0:42 mark here).
But for a catcher, so much of what they do can often go unnoticed by most of us. There’s a reason Jon Lester only wants to pitch to David Ross. There’s a reason why, even though he has a career .258 TAv and .229 batting average, the Cubs front office made sure he was a part of the team last year before Lester signed. Sure, pitching a no hitter when your team is putting up a football score doesn’t make for a very stressful outing, but pitchers can’t do their jobs effectively without the catcher doing likewise.
After the game, Ross talked about the job of catching a game like this one:
I could make some sloppy and forced comparisons here to a boxer’s cornerman, or a politician’s speechwriter, or something else like that, but like those things, in any game, it’s ultimately the pitcher’s job to deliver, though we might miss how the pitcher is being guided and coached throughout the process. When things are going well, pitcher and catcher function as a unit, and even as Arrieta didn’t have his best stuff last night, Ross helped guide him through a memorable performance. Not every at bat was executed perfectly, but these two were cohesive enough to make it happen.
In the grand scheme of no hitters, this one will probably be mostly remembered for what it says about Jake Arrieta’s career and the fact that the offense put up 16 runs, but I’d argue that here we also got to see David Ross do the thing that has made him valuable over the past decade and a half, and that’s managing a game out on the field. Sure, for some panache, he also put together a banner day at the plate, but whether or not we remember this game for it, Ross will probably look back on April 21, 2016 for the no hitter, not for his personal performance.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.