Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/20/14
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, so that is why Atlanta let him walk. 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, do plenty of regression is needed. He is also going to turn 36 in March. However, even with all that accounted for, 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 bee playing about 60 games a year, but he has been putting up 1.5-2 wins in each of those seasons, which, as we will see, 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 the extent where 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, especially since 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. So there are 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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