Player Profile: David Ross

First, a confession. I did not like the David Ross signing when it happened in December 2014. For this reason, and maybe this reason alone, I am grateful that BP Wrigleyville did not exist at this time. I am fairly certain that I would have written a piece lauding the potential of a Welington Castillo/Miguel Montero platoon and would have sounded irrationally angry at Jon Lester for whatever his role was in bringing David Ross to the team as his personal catcher. I stuck to this viewpoint well into the 2015 season; when Castillo was traded away for a bullpen flyer, I certainly wasn’t feeling particularly happy with the light-hitting (at the time) backup catcher. It wasn’t until the late July blowout that saw Ross pitch a 1-2-3 inning and then homer that I and many other Cubs fans started to come around.

I was wrong, of course, and I probably should have known it at the time. I watched the 2013 Red Sox, watched the then-36-year-old catcher OPS just .681 in 116 plate appearances, but come through in seemingly every big moment, and watched the clear chemistry that he had with his teammates (the aforementioned Lester in particular). We were all around while a career backup kept getting shot after shot in his 15-year career. And now here we are two years later. David Ross has written himself permanently into Cubs lore, carved out a small piece of baseball lore in general, and we are left to reckon with what was a remarkable year and career in many ways.

This will be the first of BP Wrigleyville’s offseason player profiles, in which we will review the seasons of 2016 Cubs players and project how they will fit in moving forward. This will be the only player profile written about a player who will not be returning to the Cubs next year, and the only one written about a player who just finished a 15-year career in which he was used almost exclusively as a backup catcher.

Position: Catcher

2016 Stats: .229 BA/.338 OBP/.446 SLG, .292 TAv, 10 HR, 30 BB, 54 K, 205 PA, 4.9 FRAA, 2.3 WARP

Year Career in Review: 2016 was David Ross’s best year since at least 2009 and 2010, when he was the backup for the Braves’ Brian McCann. In those years, he somehow put up 3.5 and then 2.4 WARP in only 151 and 145 plate appearances, respectively. This was largely based on his stupefyingly good defensive metrics, which are, of course, to some extent debatable. What isn’t debatable is that he was always considered an excellent defensive catcher, and he was someone who repeatedly showed that he could produce immense value in just small sample sizes. Let’s look into how he did that in 2016, and throughout his whole career.

There’s a perception that Ross only put up numbers against lefties throughout his career, but that just isn’t true. He had 1670 plate appearances against righties to just 974 against lefties, and OPSed .724 and .764 against them, respectively. For a backup catcher, both of these performances are more than viable; in fact, they look very viable even for a starting catcher. The platoon splits were a bit starker in 2016; he OPSed .706 against righties and .946 against lefties, but this is a very small sample, and still quite solid from the right-hand side. Six of his ten regular season homers came against righties, for example, though he hit two against lefties in the playoffs.

So, it seems that Ross was, simply, a good hitter. We know, too, that he was—at least—very good at fielding. The question, then, is why he never quite became a fixture in anyone’s lineup. I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Maybe you can partially find the answer in his 2007 age-30 season with the Reds, in which he had a career-high 348 plate appearances (he appeared in 112 games) and put up a near career-low .223 TAv. So, maybe he just wasn’t the type of player who could physically play every day, or close to it, and put up good numbers. Ross has admitted as much, though the reasons weren’t always clear. “I know I can’t catch every-day,” he said to ESPN this summer without elaborating much, “I’ll tell you that. I’m not an every-day catcher. Nope. Not that guy.”

Concussions were another issue that dogged Ross throughout his career; his first reported one came in that 2007 season, and, when he missed time in 2015, he admitted that he rushed back from another one too quickly in 2013. They affected him enough that he is now devoting time and money to concussion and brain research.

So, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, from that 2007 season on, and as he had since he broke into the majors, he consistently batted between 120 and 200 times a year, flitting in and out of the lineup, putting up excellent numbers in small samples, and finding quick, bright moments of relevance. Here he is, for example, hitting a clutch double against the Cardinals in the World Series.  But in total, the numbers are in some ways staggering. For example, Ross hit 21.5 at bats per home run, which, if the Baseball-Reference plate appearance threshold were a little bit lower, would put him in the top 200 players of all time by that metric. Baseball Prospectus has David Ross as the 47th-most valuable catcher by WARP of all-time (with 24.1), and he did that in fewer games (883) than every player in front of him on the list except for Jonathan LuCroy. He did it in fewer plate appearances (2,643) than every catcher ahead of him, ever.

2016 was his final season as a player, and in that year he caught a no-hitter, reached 100 home runs (he ended up with 106 total), and then hit a home run off the best reliever in baseball in Game 7 of a World Series that was won by the Chicago Cubs. Here again, for posterity, is that homer off of Andrew Miller:

Ross’s career and usage were optimized to his role, much more so than most players can hope for. Some players struggle when they play sporadically, but Ross seems to have struggled the most when he had to play every day. One wonders whether this helped or hurt our perception of his career. Is it fair that we will remember him as just a backup, albeit a very good one? Or is it better that we will remember him as the ultimate teammate and role player, doing what little he did as well as anyone has ever done it? I choose the latter, because in many small ways, David Ross was special.

Looking Ahead: Though he put up these very good numbers when he played, the overriding conversation around David Ross’s career was his excellent attributes as a teammate and mentor. The overheard conversation between Anthony Rizzo and Ross in the dugout in Game 7, the Grandpa Rossy schtick, the faith invested in Ross by the often-hard-to-gauge Jon Lester, even the 10 million dollars that Theo & Co. invested in Ross at age 38 are all just anecdotal pieces of evidence for something we can’t measure, but which we feel very sure is true. Now, we’ll take the playing side out of that conversation and see what unfolds. Ross has been mentioned as a “quality game manager” for years and as a budding managerial candidate since before his Cubs days. He did seem like another bench coach at times throughout the year, and he’s indicated that he’s at least interested in the possibility.

I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be happy to see David Ross stick around in the Cubs organization in some capacity or another, and I don’t know that anyone would be surprised if it happens. Even if it doesn’t, though, I’m confident that we haven’t heard the last of David Ross, and I’m confident that baseball, as it has been for the last 15 years, will be better for it.

Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports Images

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